Following 2004’s Suddenly Last Summer and 2003’s The Tempest, another Sheffield Theatres production – directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram – arrives in London wreathed in superlatives. And to those, I must add another. For, in my mind, Don Carlos is the best of this very fine bunch.
German playwright Friedrich Schiller described his 1787 drama (which has been newly translated here by Mike Poulton) as a “family portrait in a royal household”. At its heart is a tormented father-son relationship, but one in which the private clashes have far-reaching public consequences across the court, country and continent. Derek Jacobi (who last appeared on stage as Prospero in Grandage’s Tempest) plays the tyrannical King Philip II of Spain while Richard Coyle (making his classical debut after impressive turns in The York Realist, Proof and Grandage’s Donmar production of After Miss Julie) is the son of the play’s title.
Crucially, neither is wholly villainous nor sympathetic. The King may wield terror as his instrument of choice but he seeks truth and is, rightfully, wary of his sycophantic courtiers. The Prince may be a rebel with a worthy political cause but he readily abandons it when his personal desires are thwarted. Both Jacobi and Coyle capture the conflicting changeability of their characters and, in their scenes together - Carlos yearning for approval and affection even as Philip, suspicious of his son’s softer attributes, coldly rebuffs him – the tension they create is palpable.
Unable to satisfy one another, father and son search for love and loyalty in two other individuals. Unfortunately, the same two individuals: Elizabeth, once betrothed to Carlos, who Philip has taken for his own wife and queen; and Rodrigo, Carlos’ childhood friend and fellow freedom fighter, who Philip appoints as his adviser. As Elizabeth, Claire Price - as in Brand and Cyrano de Bergerac - brings something fresh and fine to a part that could well fall flat. Price is an actress who makes purity interesting. Elliot Cowan is equally alluring as the noble and articulate Rodrigo.
Played out against the Spanish Inquisition in Grandage’s stunningly period-set production – in which Oram’s blackened, dungeon-like set swirls with candle smoke and resounds with Adam Cork’s chanting music beneath Paule Constable’s sepulchral lighting - Don Carlos’ larger themes of repression, freedom of thought (“you can’t imprison men’s minds” exhorts Rodrigo) and faith (should it be placed in those nearest and dearest or in a corrupt Church?) are writ large.
‘Epic’ is an entirely appropriate term for this play and this production, which seems to both contract and expand time: the three-hour performance flies by but the players linger on in the mind long after you’ve left the Gielgud. Riveting, masterful, unforgettable theatre.
(Incidentally, though this production was Grandage’s swansong to Sheffield, where he’s acted as associate director for the past five years, London audiences can look forward to another Schiller thriller this summer at the Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage, the theatre’s artistic director, has programmed a new version of Mary Stuart.)
- Terri Paddock