The Prince of Homberg

Heinrich von Kleist, in a new version by Dennis Kelly
Donmar Warehouse
(2010)

Production photo

The Prince of Homburg is a mighty strange play. Written by Heinrich von Kleist in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, there is a suspicion that it might work as well played as a satirical comedy rather than a historical drama.

Its central character is a heroic young army officer portrayed by Charlie Cox who, as the play opens, has seemingly lost his mind. Indeed his friend Harry Hadden-Paton's Hohenzollern describes the dreamy Prince as "a sleepwalker in love with the moon". Little thereafter throws doubt on that impression.

His reverie brings about an undying love for the beautiful Princess and, with it, a rash disregard for orders from the Elector of Brandenburg, an excessively proud ruler given more than a touch of the preposterous by Ian McDiarmid.

That is hardly the ideal precursor to the next day's work on the battleground where, recklessly ignoring orders, the Prince becomes a hero in the fight against the marauding Swedes, though possibly at a cost since he may have been responsible for the loss of some of his allies' lives.

This is no fairy tale though and, rather than getting the girl and the glory as he expects, the Elector has the Prince court martialled and imprisoned. The young man's reaction is pitiful in every sense of the word as he turns coward, doing a fair impression of Claudio in Measure for Measure as he asks his love to beg for mercy at the cost of her own happiness.

The unlikely consequence is an army rebellion demanding the resurrection of their hero, led not by a hot-blooded young warrior but David Burke's doddery Colonel Kotwitz.

The remainder of the play is equally unpredictable, as is the characterisation, since most of the state's great and good take the least likely course of action whenever the opportunity arises.

By the end, all that is left is laughter, as the headstrong Princess, given very modern sensibilities by Sonya Cassidy, attempts to change the course of history single-handedly and very nearly succeeds.

Dennis Kelly has used poetic modern language to give the story a more contemporary feel, although the costumes and gloomy setting for Jonathan Munby's revival are from the original period.

The Prince of Homburg is a difficult play with its inconsistencies, and despite Heine's reputed praise that it is "as though written by the genius of poetry itself", the language is not always sufficient compensation for a story that seems so flawed.

Playing until 4 September

Reviewer: Philip Fisher