Review: Danton's Death, National Theatre - Did Danton die a Death?
Any play that has a working guillotine on the stage is always going to score points with Rev Stan (and if they have blood all the better). But I get ahead of myself. Danton's Death is as the presence of Mme G suggests about the French Revolution, a period of history in which my knowledge is at best sketchy.
The story picks up after the monarchy has been overthrown and Danton (a long-haired Toby Stephens), one of the leaders, is kicking back and enjoying the newly won liberty. He believes enough blood has been spilled and it is mans duty to enjoy the life given to them. Danton's living life to the full mainly involves wine, women and, well, he doesn't actually sing but there is definitely a lot of wine and women.
One of his fellow leaders of the revolution, Robespierre (Elliot Levey), is the antithesis of Danton. He feels their liberty is still threatened by the affluent classes and its foreign sympathisers. He also feels that the decadence and immoral behaviour of Danton and his friends is an affront to that newly won liberty and modesty should prevail in all things.
And so the stage is set for a political show down as the two men of words and their followers battle for their ideologies. Robespierre as a member of the Committee of Public Safety has Danton arrested and sets about trying to get him convicted and sent to the guillotine.
Danton, woken from the lethargy of his extended post-battle reveries, fights to save his head. ***Plot spoilers*** But, despite putting forward a good case, it isn't a fair fight. Robespierre, 'the incorruptible' as he is dubbed, has used all his influenced to nobble the jury and proclaim emergency statues that basically make Danton and his cronies' defence treason.
And so we are back to the guillotine. And yes they do chop their heads off, since you ask - not literally of course, Equity might have something to say about that. But it is done so well, I had to get someone far more knowledgeable in theatre trickery to explain how it was done. And no I'm not telling you.
The problem I had with Danton's Death is that I didn't really feel invested in Danton's character. I read in the programme on my way home that he and Robespierre had once been great, like-minded friends but didn't feel that really came across in a play that was supposed to me more about the men than the events. When the axe came down it was almost a relief that all the shouting and wild hand-gesturing was over.
That's not to say Danton's Death is a really bad play. It has a relatively simple but highly effective staging and some clever word play, it's just that I didn't feel quite as moved by the ending as perhaps playwright Georg Buchner and the worker of this revised version, Howard Brenton intended.
Booking until August 22, picture by Johan Persson.
RS Rating: 3/5
www.upthewestend.com has collated reviews on Danton (including this one) with an average rating of 3.1 stars although I think the review I feel most attuned to having now put down my own thoughts is Michael Billington's in The Guardian
Elliot Levey who plays Robespierre was in His Dark Materials at the National in which a young Mr Whishaw had a small part. And as it's the National I couldn't settle on just one connection so here's another: Paule Constable, lighting designer on Danton's also worked on ...some trace of her, which has come up before on 6DS but for those that missed it, Mr W played the lead, Prince Mishkin.