Charlie Cox, Ian McDiarmid, Siobhan Redmond, David Burke, Sonya Cassidy, Simon Coates, Jolyon Coy, Harry Hadden-Paton, William Hoyland, Mark Theodore, Julian Wadham, Lizzie Winkler
While the Donmars Artistic Director Michael Grandage is helming Bchners Dantons Death at the National Theatre, another early-nineteenth-century German historical drama in a new version by a contemporary British playwright is being staged at the Covent Garden theatre itself.
Heinrich von Kleist completed his greatest play The Prince of Homburg shortly before committing suicide aged 34 in 1811. Loosely inspired by events at the Battle of Fehrbellin in Prussia in 1675, fought between the armies of Brandenburg and Sweden, this complex tragedy is a fascinatingly ambiguous exploration of the conflicts between individual freedom and collective discipline, dream and reality.
The titular Prince cuts a Romantic figure: impetuous and ardent, he dreams of winning glory, but although the courageous cavalry charge he leads against the enemy turns possible defeat into a crushing victory, he has disobeyed the Electors battle order not to advance until commanded. In prison after receiving the death sentence from a court martial, he still revels in his own heroism and cannot at first believe that the father-figure Elector will carry it through.
Not only do the Electors wife and niece (with whom the Prince is in love) plead on his behalf, but also his fellow army officers sign a petition for his pardon. However, the Elector seems determined to stamp out any sign of insubordination as he asserts the importance of national interest over personal concerns.
Having left the Prussian army himself after tiring of its relentless discipline but thereafter pursuing a rather rootless search for a new identity, Kleist portrays with great psychological insight a man trying to be true to himself within the confines of political order. The Prince takes subjectivity to its extreme as he lives in a dream-world which seems more real to him than any external circumstances until death assumes a tangible urgency.
This new prose version by Dennis Kelly of Kleists verse drama gives a lucid account of its story and themes but lacks some of the originals metaphysical poetry, while the changed ending undermines the plays subtle ambivalence.
Jonathan Munby (who directed Calderns Life Is a Dream, with its similar juxtaposition of illusion versus reality, at the Donmar last year) here foregrounds the political over the philosophical aspects by later presenting the Elector as a proto-Fascist dictator speaking of the Fatherland and declaiming Heils.
Designer Angela Daviess towering grey palace walls evoke an overbearing brutalism, while Neil Austins imaginative lighting sometimes suggests a visionary reality and Dominic Haslams martial music contributes to the sense of military might.
Charlie Cox cuts a dash as the suitably wide-eyed and enrapt Prince, only half in this world, but shows him changing from lofty self-glorification to begging for his life and finally touching bravery. As the Elector, Ian McDiarmid shifts not altogether convincingly from comic paternalistic exasperation to sinister scheming despot.
Sonya Cassidy is his impassioned niece Natalia and Siobhan Redmond plays the Electress with gracious restraint. Harry Hadden-Paton is the Princes amiable but concerned friend Count Hohenzollern, Julian Wadham an amusingly do-it-by-the book Marshall Drfling and David Burke the bluff veteran Colonel Kottwitz, who comforts the Prince at the end by answering his question with A dream, what else?