Don Carlos

Friedrich Schiller, in a new translation by Mike Poulton
Gielgud Theatre
(2005)

Don Carlos publicity image

In recent times, it is often suggested that the West End, like Broadway, is dumbing down. It is a delight to report that there has been a change for the better in the early weeks of 2005.

Some of the very best classics from home, Spain and now Germany are currently available. Even better, several examples are wonders that will both attract audiences and send them home very happy.

It could well be argued that Michael Grandage's Don Carlos, set in the Spain of King Philip in what we regard as Elizabethan times, is as good as any. The artistic director of the Donmar is doing a fine job there but had not until recently given up his previous post in Sheffield. It is from there that he has been directing larger scale works and importing the best of them to the West End.

The acting in this three-hour drama is universally excellent. It is led by Sir Derek Jacobi as the stern, cruel King, "the foremost man in Christendom" who is opposed by his eponymous, humanist son, a man whom he can never understand, played by Richard Coyle.

These two personify different sides of man. The father with his evil allies from church and state is supported by the terror of the Inquisition that slaughters 100,000 "heretics" in autos-da-fe, secure in the knowledge that the victims will find eternal peace as a result. By contrast, the son preaches humanism.

What the King cannot do is gain the loyalty or love of Claire Price as his French wife, a diplomatic marriage between royal houses. She has been stolen from Don Carlos to whom she was originally betrothed. The problem for the King is that the younger pair are still in love, albeit at a distance.

The beautifully constructed plot thickens, as Charlotte Randle's Princess Eboli is spurned by the Prince whom she loves to distraction and she vengefully gives in to the King's unpleasant approaches.

Nobility and humanity will not lie down as freethinking, self-sacrificing Posa (Elliot Cowan), already a loyal friend to the son, is taken up by the father as a kind of surrogate but also a window on to a new way of thinking. The end, though, has a pre-ordained inevitability.

The staging always feels right. This is a tribute not only to Christopher Oram's open set, decorated with little but religious icons, but also Paule Constable's outstanding, shadowy lighting and Adam Cork's score that combines the liturgical with the atmospheric.

This is all exemplified by the appearance of a diabolical, blind Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. He dramatically emerges from a murky fog, wreaking of death and dressed in bloody red, unlike every other man at a time when black was the old black.

Sir Derek Jacobi is excellent as a harsh man who, recognising his mortality, begins to seek filial love from the equally good Richard Coyle, playing a very melancholy prince. In support, Charlotte Randle is exceptional as the unloved Princess and both Claire Price and Elliot Cowan acquit themselves well.

Under Michael Grandage's sure and frequently inventive direction, Schiller's tale of court intrigue masking so much more, is gripping throughout. This battle between father and son with its human, philosophical and political ramifications should not be missed.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher