There’s been a spate of recent productions in London concerned with the Golden Age of Spain, what with the RSC’s themed season at the Playhouse – of which Lope de Vega’s The Dog In The Manager was the undoubted highlight – and Torben Betts’ (somewhat disappointing) The Lunatic Queen over at Riverside Studios. But the one that really made an impact, the one that got the critics dolling out those elusive five star reviews, was Michael Grandage’s visually muted yet thoroughly gripping version of Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy at the Gielgud Theatre.
Already a big success during its run at the Sheffield Crucible, the production arrived in the West End already backed by good word of mouth and solid reviews. Going to see Don Carlos my expectations were inevitably high, and, for the most part, they were met. The production opens with a censer swinging across the empty stage, fogging the air with incense (especially for those up in the balconies.) Its an appropriately atmospheric and foreboding opening.
Prince Carlos (played by Coupling’s Richard Coyle) still nurtures feelings for Elizabeth, the woman to whom he was once betrothed, the woman who is now married to his father, the tyrannical King Phillip II of Spain. The man caught in the middle of this fraught situation is Carlos’ friend Rodrigo (Eliot Cowan.) The King has little respect for his son, who he views as weak and unworthy; in fact he perceives greater moral strength in Rodrigo. Derek Jacobi is, unsurprisingly, very good as the Spanish King, though it is an unusual role for him. A volatile man, he is capable of brutality – of both a political and a personal nature – but he is not without his vulnerabilities.
Christopher Oram’s dark, sombre set compliments the tone of the production, though it is Paule Constable’s lighting design that really enriches it, warming the walls and streaming through barred windows. The musical segues between scenes inject an edge of the cinematic into what is an inherently theatrical play. Like everything in this production it is not overstated yet highly effective.
Alongside Jacobi, the performances are consistently strong. As Elizabeth, Claire Price is highly sympathetic as a woman forced into an impossible place, frustrated by court traditions, unable even to see her own daughter except at the allotted hour. As Carlos, Richard Coyle however doesn’t really convey the full passion and emotional turmoil you might expect from a man in his situation.
Don Carlos is a long play, but never tiresomely so; in the second act especially there are some incredibly gripping exchanges. And while the plot is complex and a little knowledge of the period helps, Mike Poulton’s effective, pared down translation is complimented by Grandage’s expert direction to ensure that your attention is held firmly until the play’s downbeat and chilling conclusion.
So yes, this production is a deserved recipient of all its critical hype. But though it is truly thrilling in places, it is also essentially familiar and traditional in its approach.The fact that this really is one of the most exciting things on the West End stage at the moment says more about the current state of London theatre than it does about the production itself.