France 1794 and the revolutionaries spend most of their time playing marbles – or boules, perhaps – with the aristocrats' heads they've sliced off using the guillotine. Well, we don't actually see that on stage, you understand, but that's basically what was happening – a purge of everyone who belonged to the aristocratic class and those who didn't agree with the direction that the revolution was taking.
Though we've come to expect productions of epic proportions at the Olivier, this play is, in spite of Christopher Oram's towering set, far more intimate than we generally see at this theatre. In fact, it turns out to be a character study contrasting two great political figures from French history.
'Danton's Death' is a power struggle between old chums who've basically fallen out. It happens in the best of revolutionary circles, I suppose. The play was written by Georg Büchner at the age of just 21 in 1835, and has been described as one of the greatest revolutionary works in European theatre. This new version is by Howard Brenton, most famous perhaps for his work 'The Romans in Britain', also produced at the National back in 1980 and which led to a sensational court case. Brenton also has a new play, 'Anne Boleyn', about to open at the Globe.
Though Georges Danton was more than willing to join in the bloodbath at the beginning of the revolution, by the time the play starts he's softened his line, presumably believing that 'enough is enough'. But his former friend and co-revolutionary, Robespierre, is as fanatical as ever, if not more so, and the ensuing clash between the two is telegraphed from the start.
Toby Stephens takes the lead as the larger-than-life Georges Danton and is in what could be described as swashbuckling form. Stephens's Danton is a swaggering alpha male who apparently loves his wife, but also spends much of his time carousing with prostitutes. Described in the play as 'the evil genius of the revolution' he admits to excesses and perhaps it's this that makes him indecisive about whether he really wants to live. One minute he doesn't seem to give a fig whether he meets his end or not, and the next minute he's railing in court, fighting for his life by proclaiming his good works for the revolution.
In complete contrast, Danton's nemesis, Robespierre, is not one for changing direction of holding back on the bloodbath, and moreover he's 'incorruptible'. Elliot Levey as Robespierre is a sly weasel, the kind of character you'd think you would love to hate. But, surprisingly, he's also a rather pathetic, lonely figure and it's hard not to feel a semblance of sympathy for him in spite of his paranoid zeal for butchering people. Both Toby Stephens and Elliot Levey turn in excellent performances, and there's great support from Alec Newman as Saint-Just who turns out to be Robespierre's 'gofer', organising the behind-the-scenes dirty work and using his persuasive oratory to produce the desired results.
We don't actually see the guillotine – invented in 1792 specifically for the revolutionaries to end life rather than inflict pain – until right at the very end of the play, but when it does appear the effect is brilliantly, er, executed and turns out to be both moving and monstrously hideous at the same time. I for one couldn't have sat next to the real machine knitting a tea cosy while aristos came to a headless end.
Unsurprisingly, Robespierre met the same fate as Danton less than four months later. So much for being 'incorruptible' and virtuous. But then there's a definite sense of inevitability about this play – and the real events on which it's based.
Studied and measured as one would expect from a director of the stature of Michael Grandage, it's a fascinating play, but it never became truly compelling because it lacked increasing tension. Perhaps the inevitability of the outcome was too readily apparent from the start and, like spectators witnessing their hundredth beheading, we became somewhat emotionally immune.
"This version thins the dramatic texture and turns the play into a character study: one in which the sensual, death-haunted, strangely passive Danton confronts the repressed, life-fearing, remorselessly active Robespierre. That is a vital part of Büchner's play; but to focus so exclusively on that element is to miss the larger point that they are also history's puppets."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Certain plays are easier to admire than to love. Danton’s Death (1835), written by Georg Büchner in a fit of revolutionary zeal when he was just 21, indubitably falls into this category."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Thrilling production...a truly gripping drama. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Visually arresting and viscerally involving production."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"'Danton’s Death' is not uplifting or touching but it makes for an interesting, admirably serious evening."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail