The nineteenth-century German playwright Georg Bchner may have died at the tender age of 23 but he is remembered for two masterly plays. While the unfinished Woyzeck is an extraordinarily modern, expressionistic work about one mans psychological breakdown, Dantons Death is a more rhetorical account of the French Revolution centred on the protagonists tragic downfall.
Written in less than five weeks in 1835 when the revolutionary Bchner was wanted by the authorities for allegedly treasonable activities, Dantons Death is far from a simplistic agit prop advocacy of liberty, fraternity and equality.
Set in 1794 when the Terror was in full swing, it focuses on the developing conflict between the two contrasting leaders of the Revolution: the peoples favourite Danton, a courageous and passionate proponent of liberty with a sensualists weakness for women and wine, and the Incorruptible Robespierre, a cold-blooded and ruthless scourge of the ancien rgime who self-righteously looked down on any form of personal indulgence.
Bchner shows how five years after the storming of the Bastille the high ideals of the Jacobins have descended into murderous mob rule, as the corrupt monarchy of Louis XVI has been replaced by the ironically named Committee of Public Safety which made liberal use of the guillotine. Danton is guiltily aware that the radical fervour has got out of control and urges a more moderate policy but for Robespierre the ends justify the means as he pursues the destruction of so-called enemies of the Revolution with single-minded zeal.
As one would expect, Howard Brentons new version of the play does full justice to its high-level political debate but there is not much dramatic suspense here. In his National Theatre debut, Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Michael Grandage handles the declamatory set-pieces with aplomb but there is little sense of the chaos in the streets or of real danger pressing, though the final guillotine scene is well executed. For such an epic subject the large Olivier stage is rather under-used, with the revolve for once not coming into play.
Christopher Orams wooden-walled set is visually striking with tall shuttered windows occasionally opened and a balcony curving above the stage while Paule Constables murky lighting and Adam Corks echoing music and sound help to add some atmosphere.
Toby Stephens is well cast as the swaggering, hedonistic Danton, giving a charismatic performance as the flawed hero who cannot believe he will be arrested until it is too late, but who defends himself in court with eloquence and dies defiantly. Elliot Levey is a compelling Robespierre, not only capturing his puritanical determination but also suggesting the inner loneliness of a man who puts ideology above humanity. Barnaby Kay and Alec Newman give good support as, respectively, Dantons gentle poet friend Camille and Robespierres firebrand henchman Saint-Just.
In history, if not in the play, all come to the same sticky end.