Georg Büchner, in a new version by Howard Brenton
RNT Olivier Theatre
Michael Grandage is not a name that is usually associated with the National but his debut there is striking both for its visual and verbal imagery.
His regular designer, Christopher Oram, uses a large-scale, minimalist set that succeeds because, with the use of dry ice and subtle lighting, it creates images straight from of the art of the French Revolutionary period, perhaps by David.
It has to be said that Danton's Death is an unnecessarily wordy play. It was written by Georg (Woyzeck) Büchner, a playwright who, like several of the characters portrayed did not make it to old age, dying at 23. In his case though, typhoid rather than Mme Guillotine was the cause.
Pleasingly, in Howard Brenton's new version, at its best the text has the power to rouse the heart, even if there are a few too many longueurs.
The drama sets Danton, the drunken pleasure-seeker at the head of a group of "vice-ridden libertines" in opposition to the Incorruptible Robespierre. This unlovable puritan, who brings to mind some unyielding politicians of much more recent era, is played by Elliot Levey and sneers at anything that might be classed as pleasure.
Robespierre does excite others, generating spectacular descriptions, being referred to as both "a Messiah of blood" and "Christ in reverse".
These two men were together responsible for a Revolution that changed the face of France forever, creating a Republic that has lasted to the present day, but by the time that the play opens, have become implacable enemies.
Danton is whoring and resting on his laurels, while Robespierre is leading the unintentionally ironically entitled Committee of Public Safety in its bloody cleansing of anyone who might offer opposition to his cause.
The highlight of the evening lies in a pair of court scenes in which Toby Stephens in the title role rises from lassitude to a peak of fury, not so much delivering a defence as an all-out attack that silences the mean-minded men intent on seeing his head and those of his friends in a tumbrel.
Büchner and Brenton lighten the mood by mixing the political jousting with more personal scenes, showing how very different the two competing leaders of the Revolution really are.
Even so, Danton's Death is not a spectacular play, being more intent on telling its tale through portentous speeches than actions. However, its ending in this production is quite remarkable, using illusion so cleverly that one fears for audience members, some of whom will surely faint dead away before the run ends.
Those that survive will have enjoyed a timely history lesson distinguished by a production that shows a flawed play in a good light.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher