Danton’s Death has a reputation for being long, wordy, and not easily accessible unless you are up-to-speed on the political backdrop of the French Revolution. Yet it seems to be a perennial favourite with the National Theatre, now staging their third production of Georg Büchner epic.
With the Donmar’s Michael Grandage making his NT directorial debut and an abridged script by Howard Brenton, it seems that all the stops have been pulled out to make this are more accessible production.
On some levels it does work, played without an interval at 1 hour 45 minutes, the piece has more pace than the full production. Despite valiant attempts though, Danton’s Death, at its core, still remains a series of long speeches with little dramatic variety. A stream of characters pontificate about the revolution, only to be followed by further characters doing the same.
The only moments of relief come in the romantic interludes by Danton but these never really provide enough dramatic variety.
Making his National Theatre debut, Toby Stephens gives a strong performance but Danton is a character you never really warm to. By the time we get to the entrance of Madame Guillotine for his death (yes the play’s title is one of the biggest plot spoilers) we don’t really care for the fate of Danton and his compatriots. The entrance of the Guillotine is one of the dramatic highpoints of the evening but comes too late to inject any real tension into the piece.
Other strong performances from Elliot Levey as Robespierre and Kirstie Bushell as Lucy are worth catching. Grandage directs with pace and utilises Christopher Oram’s giant window clad set effectively, while Paule Constable’s lighting creates a suitably shadowy world for the revolutionaries. Overall though this is a strangely sterile revolutionary world, passions are never full raised and the wretched poor all look a bit to clean and well dressed to upraise. In a way this is a very British revolution, all a bit to well behaved and mannered and in need of some Gallic passion.
The Guillotine may have been used on Büchner’s script but this still seems deathly wordy and in need of further slicing.