REVIEW ROUNDUP: Toby Stephens, Elliot Levey, et al. Open in Michael Grandage-Directed Danton's Death
The company also features Barnaby Kay (Camille Desmoulins) and Alec Newman (Saint-Just), as well as David Beames, Max Bennett, Stefano Braschi, Kirsty Bushell, Jason Cheater, Judith Coke, Emmanuella Cole, Ilan Goodman, Taylor James, Michael Jenn, Phillip Joseph, Gwilym Lee, Eleanor Matsuura, Elizabeth Nestor, Chu Omambala, Rebecca O'Mara, Rebecca Scroggs, David Smith, Jonathan Warde, and Ashley Zhangazha.
The production has been designed by Christopher Oram and includes lighting design by Paule Constable and sound design and original music by Adam Cork.
Reviews have begun appearing and there's division among the reviewers as to the effectiveness of Grandage's production -- which features significant cuts to the text. More unanimity can be found among the critics about the performances, but there seems to be no consensus.
Among the reviews are:
Danton's Death, National Theatre, review
"Unlike Woyzeck, on which Berg based his opera, Danton's Death is rarely revived and watching Michael Grandage's often thrilling production which opened in the Olivier last night, I wondered why."
"Michael Grandage's production, on an impressively spare, bleak design by Christopher Oram, confidently choreographs the big crowd scenes, with hardliners baying for blood, and a thrilling trial scene in which Danton argues passionately to save his life. There is also a terrific climactic appearance of the guillotine, with executions so convincing that you are surprised that several prominent members of the cast don't take the curtain call with their heads neatly tucked beneath their arms."
"Toby Stephens has always cut a dash in heroic roles, and he is in splendid form here. He presents Danton as an idealist who is also passionately in love with life, love, sex and wine, and haunted with guilt about his own bloody part in the revolution.
"He swaggers round the stage with panache, but also discovers quieter moments of tenderness and fear, that convey a touching, flawed humanity. In contrast Elliot Levey makes a Robespierre who chills the blood with his pernickety precision and moral self-righteousness about mass murder, though even he has tortured moments of doubt."
Good use of guillotine makes daunting Danton's Death more watchable
"It's the sort of play whose footnotes threaten to be longer than the work itself. Thank heavens, then, for this comparatively pithy, pared-down new version by Howard Brenton."
"Stephens is a weary revolutionary, most convincing away from the dry rhetoric of politics. "We had some times, body, you and I," is his poignant reminiscence with himself on the eve of execution. He's well supported by Barnaby Kay as Desmoulins, Danton's loyal right-hand man."
"Levey's nicely pitched performance readily explains Robespierre's nickname of the "Incorruptible". His mean, reedy delivery allows no compassion or compromise, although Levey cleverly suggests a man who is increasingly haunted. His time at the top of Fortune's wheel, we readily gather, will be short. The Revolution will eat itself."
"But although Michael Grandage, in his National debut, handles the stage with assurance, I miss the epic sweep of Peter Gill's 1982 production. Like Gill, Grandage uses a Howard Brenton translation: the change here is that Brenton has stripped out crucial public scenes to give us a two-hour chamber play."
"Even if diluted, this production makes some shrewd psychological points; and its greatest revelation is that Robespierre is a tragic figure. As excellently played by Elliot Levey, he becomes a man who conceals his private failings under a mask of public vehemence. Instead of the usual steely-eyed fanatic, Levey presents us with a man who instinctively flinches when Danton touches him, who is aware of his own solitude and persuades himself he is conducting a moral as well as a social revolution."
"Danton is the showier role and Toby Stephens invests it with his own charisma and brings out the character's central contradiction: he both seeks to defy death and surrender to it [...] But, while Stephens admirably embodies Danton's anti-heroic aspect, there is a perverse grandeur to the man whom Carlyle dubbed the "Titan of the Revolution" which subtly eludes him."
"But the bottom line is that Büchner's play is about the "terrible fatalism of history" where this perfectly respectable production is more concerned with a confrontation of temperamental opposites."
"Grandage's reductive approach is a waste of the Olivier's epic potential, although the second half of this compressed version, with its dreams and nightmares and strange, jagged poetry - all very well done in Howard Brenton's new translation from a literal version by his wife Jane Fry and the Propeller actor Simon Scardifield - is much better."
"Barnaby Kay gives another fine performance as Camille Desmoulins, and Eleanor Matsuura caches the eye as Danton's prostitute. And there's some classy revolutionary rumbling on the soundtrack by Adam Cork, another example, though, of how aesthetic niceties have disguised the play's real mess and fervour."