Don Carlos

Friedrich Schiller
Lazarus Theatre Company
Blue Elephant Theatre

Don Carlos publicity image

This German classic is a complex tale set in the reign of the Spanish king who married England's Queen Mary I, launched the Armada against Elizabeth I and created the Holy League which defeated the Ottomans at the battle of Lepanto. He was a great upholder of the Catholic Church against Protestantism and the Inquisition was a powerful force in Spain.

Don Carlos was the son of Philip's first wife, a Portuguese princess who died at his birth. He was betrothed to Elizabeth de Valois, daughter of Henry of II of France as part of a peace settlement. In 1560, before the marriage took place, Philip decided to marry Elizabeth himself, but Carlos had already fallen in love with the woman he now had to call his mother.

Spain was at the peak of its power but Philip had to put down a rebellion by the Moorish population in Granada and faced revolt in his territories in the Netherlands, all of which forms part of the background to the play which takes place when Elizabeth has already become a mother.

In this shortened version, running just over 90 minutes without interval, the political background is still there but director Ricky Dukes places the emphasis on Don Carlos' personal story, still passionate about Elizabeth, though one of her attendants, the Princess Eboli, mistakenly believes his attention is towards her which leads to the threat of exposure.

Designer as well as director, Dukes has staged the play in modern dress, lit by Heather Doole through heavy misting. This is a world of dark intrigue, though he begins it with chairs and tables being ritualistically placed on the brown lozenge that forms his playing space and, when his cast has assembled, presents a burst of light, colour and singing that suggest a flamenco café in which Prince Carlos is approached by his father's Confessor seeing to draw him back into court life.

Carlos' childhood friend the Marquis de Posa arrives and, with the café crowd first frozen motionless and then slowly drifting away, they move among the spaces between them as they converse. It is a theatrically intriguing effect and continues with courtiers and attendants very slowly assembling or crossing the stage as scenes proceed, which suggests something of the stately formality of court life.

In contrast to this, Philip himself appears without a jacket, in braces and with rolled up sleeves, even at one point sunk onto the floor and bare-chested. A king en déshabille seems awkward, though it could be meant to emphasise his authority when others have to be straight-laced and Carlos in shirtsleeves reflects some of his wildness. Robin Holden as King Philip, though looking far too young, gives him a suitable hardness which helps establish his primacy.

No translator is credited, I presume it is an out-of-copyright version, for it frequently uses archaic forms such as "come sirs" and "thou" and there are references to weaponry and appurtenances the actors are not actually wearing. I am the last person to suggest tinkering with an original text but in adapting from a different language there is no need to preserve them when they are at odds with what we see.

Douglas Rutter takes time to think what he is saying and has a gentler way of playing than some of his colleagues who are more conscious of the verse than of the sense. He has found a much more natural phrasing and is not intimidated by it. Sherina Chalhie's Queen stands out among her ladies, with a confident presence, and Alice Brown as the Princess Eboli handles her big scene well. In this, and other scenes in the latter part of the play, Dukes allows his cast to engage more directly with the audience, though too little is shared in early scenes. The plot is sometimes difficult to follow, especially where it involves the Netherlands rebellion and support for Protestantism, but this production has a theatricality of presentation that makes it intriguing.

"Don Carlos" runs at the Blue Elephant theatre until 26th November 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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