Saturnine Sons of the Terror

A 19th-century play about an 18th-century revolution may be baffling. But it’s worth it

Theatre
Not entirely convincing: Toby Stephens in "Danton's Death"

Georg Büchner’s great and unconventional play, Danton’s Death (1835), suffers from contemporary ignorance. Few people today can be expected to know much about the writer or early 19th-century European theatre, the French Revolution or even who Danton was. Büchner was a young revolutionary himself under police surveillance when he wrote Danton in Hesse. The Terror of the French Revolution had happened only 40 years previously. 

Today, those events and their passionate intellectual preoccupations are largely forgotten. This makes the play hard to appreciate, even in Howard Brenton’s colloquial new version at the Olivier. For anyone conscious of some gaps in their knowledge of the French Revolution, it is well worth reading the excellent programme before the curtain rises.

All the same, historically refreshed or not, no one can fail to be moved by the tragic power of this production or by its energy and lyricism. “Revolution is like Saturn,” Büchner wrote. “It devours its own children.” This is the horrifying spectacle that we see. Revolutionary leaders turn against each other, in the shadow of mob rule and the guillotine, and justify themselves with nonsensical rhetoric. But the legendary Danton, only recently a great hero of the people’s massacres, is now sick of betrayal and senseless killing, as are his close friends. By contrast, his colleague and rival Robespierre, the so-called Incorruptible, is determined to reduce the country to “a blood-soaked Eden” through “the despotism of liberty against tyranny”. For Robespierre, Danton’s death is a necessary sacrifice to revolutionary purity, as well as politically convenient. (His own execution followed fewer than four months later.)

If the audience cannot always follow which faction is talking about which, the underlying terror and paranoia is all too clear. Like all productions at the National Theatre, the play is well served by British theatrical technique. Christopher Oram’s austere set and Paule Constable’s dark and fitful lighting convey the uncertainty and the claustrophobia that overwhelm everyone. The Petit Palais, a prison, a courtroom and a brothel are all half-conjured out of a fearful darkness. 

Oddly though, since the standard of British acting is usually high, the performances in Danton’s Death were surprisingly patchy. There was much too much declamation, and while it must be difficult to perform a play with so much abstraction, some players managed less well than others. Toby Stephens is an outstanding actor who has the gift of speaking his lines as if he had himself just thought of them. However, here he is not entirely convincing. His Danton is too human, too complex, too self-indulgent and too self-mocking to convince us that he was ever a mass murderer. Danton has some wonderful reflections on great questions of life, death and oblivion: Büchner admired Shakespeare very much and the influence is clear. There is something both Shakespearean and contemporary in Danton’s world-weariness, which has overtaken his revolutionary idealism and which Stephens conveys convincingly. But overall he is outshone both by Elliot Levey (Robespierre) and Alec Newman (St Just, Robespierre’s enforcer), both of whom manage to embody the horror of the times, in different ways. 

Levey gives the priggish Robespierre a wide range of very subtle emotions, from conflicted self-control to flashes of self-doubt and hints of lunacy, and he speaks with a sinister resonance that is unnerving. Even better is Newman’s St Just, who alone of all the players really conveys the unswerving, cunning brutality of the Terror: the physical authority and heartless conviction he brings to the role are chilling.

Although the French Revolution is almost lost in the past, there are plenty of recent and contemporary resonances in this play. Robespierre’s contorted rhetoric, seemingly so hyper-rational but actually insane, brings to mind the monstrous rhetoric of Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs, all claiming with Robespierre that terror is a necessary part of virtue and vice versa. To anyone who questions the revival of a 19th-century play about an 18th-century revolution, one should say that those who forget history, as most of us do, are condemned to repeat it. Despite its difficulties and its weaknesses, this production is worth seeing and runs until October 14. 

For those like me who find the American film star Jeff Goldblum irresistible, his appearance at the Vaudeville in London in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue is not to be missed. The play itself hardly matters, which is just as well as it is not very good. That doesn’t seem to matter to Goldblum much — he clearly loves being on the London stage, and hamming it up a bit, and takes his curtain calls with an endearing smile. There is something reassuring in the way that international superstars such as Goldblum still think it worthwhile to tread the boards of a small English theatre. It is a pity we didn’t get a chance to see what he could have done with a good play. 

The Prisoner of Second Avenue, first produced on Broadway in 1971, was a big hit at the time, but — unlike the irresistible Mr  Goldblum — it hasn’t aged well. Goldblum’s character is imprisoned in his depressing flat near Second Avenue by unemployment, a nervous breakdown and general Weltschmerz, though hardly as serious as that of Danton. The play has a lot of fairly funny lines, which the actors milk competently — Mercedes Ruehl, the long-suffering wife, has good comic timing and an intriguing voice — but mental illness and a drawn-out breakdown are no longer subjects that many people find funny. The central concerns of the play seem dated and unconvincing. 

The audience seemed to enjoy it hugely, but I cannot help thinking that was because they, like me, were dazzled by the outsize physical presence and deeply seductive voice of the great man: he has a classical actor’s ability to project his lines very clearly without any apparent effort. 

Although he is not quite as young as he used to be, Goldblum still has the Hollywood hunk’s radiant allure. That’s what people pay to see when movie stars come to the West End. And that’s what you get with this production.