I like history, I like politics and I like theatre. I had good reason to think that Danton’s Death at the National Theatre, combining all of these things and chucking in a South Bank debut for superstar director Michael Grandage (he’s so hot right now), would be an excellent evening’s entertainment. It’s funny how things turn out.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this productions’s problems. On entering the Olivier, the dull set – comprised of massive grey flats with four doors on the lower level and a walkway above – fails to fill the whole stage and that pretty much sets the tone of the piece. Minimal props and furniture come on from time to time but there’s no effort to create any real sense of place. The focus, we are to understand, is on the actors and the text.
Those actors are led, nominally, by Toby Stephens as Danton; he seems to be very uncomfortable on stage. His weak voice could barely be heard from the front row of the circle and he seemed so languid I wondered if Danton’s titular death was supposed to have been caused by ennui. The rest of the company run the gamut from school play style monotonous recitation to pantoesque lip-smacking villainy. The dissonance in performance style didn’t seem especially surprising since the cast seemed mainly to be meeting each other for the first time ever on stage. The only person to come away with any credit is Elliot Levey, whose Robespierre is the sole character to leave any sort of impression at all. He speaks the lines as though he understands them, and tries to find a coherent personality to bring them together. His singular success makes it all the more of a shame that he leaves the play halfway through never to be seen or heard from again.
The disappearing Robespierre is one of the problems which can’t be laid solely at the feet of the production. This is apparently the third production of Danton’s Death at the National and, frankly, the mind boggles. It is, in its latest incarnation, a terrible, terrible play. The protagonist is utterly unsympathetic – he is first introduced cheating on his wife and spends most of the time insisting that no-one will arrest him because he’s just so bloody brilliant – and there’s absolutely nothing in the way of a coherently constructed narrative. Events just happen, people wander in and out of importance and focus and it never finds a comfortable balance between the personal, the political and the historical which makes every aspect of it completely unmoving. There’s no sweep of history but neither are we induced to care a jot for any individual. There’s little in the way of dialogue and argument; there’s a great deal in the way of random speechifying which invariably seems unmotivated by anything else which is happening.
If the roles for men range from the dull to the anonymous, the roles for women go from the embarrassing to the offensive. Wives are wheeled on to be supportive, quietly, and a prostitute gets a long speech explaining why she loves what she does and how it’s an honour to serve. A maid gets no lines but is sent out to report on what the people on the street are saying (twice), but we never hear what she discovers. It culminates in a character whom we’ve only seen once or twice before suddenly getting a long, lunatic monologue addressed to her husband (one of two fairly similar looking mates of Danton; it was hard to care or remember which) which was genuinely excruciating to watch.
The production is played without an interval and it’s not hard to imagine why; even so, despite being less than two hours long it felt like one of the longest evenings of my life. Sitting through to the end one is rewarded with the only worthwhile event of the whole play: actual beheading, live onstage! By the time it comes around, though, the only feelings to be mustered are curiosity at how it’s done, and tentative joy at the thought it might all soon be over. As high points go it’s too little too late, and doesn’t stop Danton’s Death being comfortably the worst thing I’ve ever seen in the Olivier (and I say that as a veteran of both the Stephen Rea Cyrano de Bergerac and the recent revival of Once in a Lifetime).