Georg Buchner wrote Danton’s Death in the Vormarz (“before March”) period of German literature and politics leading up to the failed March 1848 revolution. Set in the last spring of the French revolution (1794), Buchner’s play examines the split in the Jacobin party between the moderates led by Danton (Toby Stephens) and Desmoulins (Barnaby Kay) and Robespierre’s radical group.
That split in some ways foreshadowed the divisions which have occurred in future revolutions as the desire for rapid change meets the paranoia of opposition.
Danton’s group were not “moderates” in the normal definition of the word. They were fully involved in the elimination of the French monarch and other clear opponents of the new order. This play encapsulates the period of final turmoil when Danton’s faction insists that the Terror of September 1793 to July 1794, when some thousands were guillotined as counter-revlutionaries, could not continue and the revolution must consolidate itself. This puts them in direct conflict with Robespierre (Elliot Levey).
Cristopher Oram’s set design definitely captures the feeling of imprisonment the revolutionaries must have felt in their desire for freedom. They fought to destroy their country’s omnipresent chains at the expense of being branded traitors.
A dark five-sided, high-walled balcony surrounds a plain stage space with scenes and spaces loosely defined by various props, a bench, a table, and the opening of three metre-high shutters.
The scenes run into each other, creating confusion for the audience at the beginning as to where we are in the story. However, as the play reaches its end there is no doubt that we the audience are with the prisoners in their cell.
The final scenes are inevitable — despite Danton’s assurances and brilliant defence in court — but extremely well executed (in both senses). The execution scenes are realistic, and a murmur of shock ran throughout the audience at the guillotine and the heads of its victims. It was hard to tell however, whether the shock was due to the end of the story or the representation of the guillotine’s deadly blade on stage.
Toby Stephens’ theatre debut as the charismatic orator Danton is not disappointing. At the beginning his representation is merely arrogant and misogynistic, full of unconquerable swagger. By the end, however, Stephens’ portrayal has solidified into one of great strength and complexity, and we can fully empathise.
Barnaby Kay’s Desmoulins is tender and sensible. His scenes with his wife Lucille (Rebecca O’Mara) are intimate and subtle despite her appearances being brief.
Danton and his wife Julie (Kirsty Bushell) were less sympathetic despite her ideological support to the extent of her own suicide.
Robespierre’s cool, sinister and yet sincere characterisation by Levey is wonderful. Although there is distrust you can see he is acting from inpersonal and idealistic motives. This is a hard role to pull off.
Howard Brenton’s adaptation of Buchner’s romantic and rhetorical master piece never loses the power of the original language but makes it comprehensible to all. Although not a laugh a minute, this play is interesting, emotional and still politically relevant. See this play if you are interested in how to avoid the revolutionary mistakes of the past.
Danton's Death is at the National Theatre until October 14