Not entirely convincing: Toby Stephens in "Danton's Death"
Georg Büchner's great and unconventional play, Danton's Death (1835), suffers from contemporary ignorance. Few people today can be expected to know much about the writer or early 19th-century European theatre, the French Revolution or even who Danton was. Büchner was a young revolutionary himself under police surveillance when he wrote Danton in Hesse. The Terror of the French Revolution had happened only 40 years previously.
Today, those events and their passionate intellectual preoccupations are largely forgotten. This makes the play hard to appreciate, even in Howard Brenton's colloquial new version at the Olivier. For anyone conscious of some gaps in their knowledge of the French Revolution, it is well worth reading the excellent programme before the curtain rises.
All the same, historically refreshed or not, no one can fail to be moved by the tragic power of this production or by its energy and lyricism. "Revolution is like Saturn," Büchner wrote. "It devours its own children." This is the horrifying spectacle that we see. Revolutionary leaders turn against each other, in the shadow of mob rule and the guillotine, and justify themselves with nonsensical rhetoric. But the legendary Danton, only recently a great hero of the people's massacres, is now sick of betrayal and senseless killing, as are his close friends. By contrast, his colleague and rival Robespierre, the so-called Incorruptible, is determined to reduce the country to "a blood-soaked Eden" through "the despotism of liberty against tyranny". For Robespierre, Danton's death is a necessary sacrifice to revolutionary purity, as well as politically convenient. (His own execution followed fewer than four months later.)
If the audience cannot always follow which faction is talking about which, the underlying terror and paranoia is all too clear. Like all productions at the National Theatre, the play is well served by British theatrical technique. Christopher Oram's austere set and Paule Constable's dark and fitful lighting convey the uncertainty and the claustrophobia that overwhelm everyone. The Petit Palais, a prison, a courtroom and a brothel are all half-conjured out of a fearful darkness.
Oddly though, since the standard of British acting is usually high, the performances in Danton's Death were surprisingly patchy. There was much too much declamation, and while it must be difficult to perform a play with so much abstraction, some players managed less well than others. Toby Stephens is an outstanding actor who has the gift of speaking his lines as if he had himself just thought of them. However, here he is not entirely convincing. His Danton is too human, too complex, too self-indulgent and too self-mocking to convince us that he was ever a mass murderer. Danton has some wonderful reflections on great questions of life, death and oblivion: Büchner admired Shakespeare very much and the influence is clear. There is something both Shakespearean and contemporary in Danton's world-weariness, which has overtaken his revolutionary idealism and which Stephens conveys convincingly. But overall he is outshone both by Elliot Levey (Robespierre) and Alec Newman (St Just, Robespierre's enforcer), both of whom manage to embody the horror of the times, in different ways.