George Büchner was 21 when he wrote Danton's Death - a revolutionary himself, he was hiding from the police at the time. Some have claimed the play to be the greatest political tragedy ever written, and this adaptation by Howard Brenton captures Büchner's exhilarating energy as Danton struggles to avoid his inexorable fall. The production opened in the Olivier at the National Theatre on 22 July 2010 (previews from 15 July) and continues in rep until 14 October.
Set during the climax of the French Revolution, Danton is tormented by his part in the killings of his fellow revolutionaries. His political rival, the driven, ascetic Robespierre, was once his friend. Now one stands for compromise, the other for ideological purity as the guillotine awaits.
The production marks the National Theatre debut for Donmar Warehouse artistic director, Michael Grandage, who brings a rather stark interpretation to the stage of the Olivier. Toby Stephens, most recently seen in The Real Thing at the Old Vic, takes the title role, whilst National Theatre regular Elliot Levey is given a role to sink his teeth into with the "incorruptible" Robespierre.
Did Grandage leave the critics onside or in revolt?
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – "The National Theatre keeps returning to Georg Büchner’s thrilling 1835 drama of the French Revolution. ... Büchner, who wrote the play aged 21 in just five weeks, captures the squall and confusion of the First Terror ... Danton, played with great vim and swagger by Toby Stephens, is the victim of the tribunal he founded a few months earlier... But the public street scenes are damagingly cut... The National Assembly is woefully under-populated, too, with a dozen members rhubarbing away upstage... Paule Constable's lighting of Christopher Oram's bleak, high-windowed set, using about half the stage, is a masterpiece of invention... Nonetheless, Grandage’s reductive approach is a waste of the Olivier’s epic potential. The early invented scene of Robespierre being assisted in his levée by three women is not a success, and the ingenious sleight-of-hand lavished on the climactic executions at a matchbox-sized guillotine is frankly risible. Barnaby Kay gives another fine performance as Camille Desmoulins, and Eleanor Matsuura caches the eye as Danton’s prostitute."
Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (four stars) – "The German dramatist Georg Büchner was only 21 when he wrote Danton’s Death in five frenetic weeks ... The play is one of the most astonishing debuts in dramatic history and before his tragically early death from typhoid two years later he had written another masterpiece, Woyzeck... Unlike Woyzeck... Danton’s Death is rarely revived and ... You need to do a bit of homework if your knowledge of the French Revolution is as patchy as mine. It is both an acute analysis of the dangers of radicalism ... and a powerful meditation on death that often brings Shakespeare’s Hamlet to mind. Michael Grandage's production... confidently choreographs the big crowd scenes, with hardliners baying for blood, and a thrilling trial scene in which Danton argues passionately to save his life. Toby Stephens has always cut a dash in heroic roles ... He swaggers round the stage with panache, but also discovers quieter moments of tenderness and fear, that convey a touching, flawed humanity."
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – "The National has done its best to render this daunting political tragedy accessible ... but it remains a tough ask. Büchner’s original text is sprawling and dense ... Thank heavens, then, for this comparatively pithy, pared-down new version by Howard Brenton, presented as part of the National’s Travelex £10 season. It’s the spring of 1794... Danton (Stephens) and Robespierre (Elliot Levey) are on an inexorable collision course. Danton, a man with a well-developed love of life’s earthier pleasures, wants to stop the purges and show mercy. Stephens is a weary revolutionary, most convincing away from the dry rhetoric of politics. 'We had some times, body, you and I,' is his poignant reminiscence with himself on the eve of execution ... Levey’s nicely pitched performance readily explains Robespierre’s nickname of the 'Incorruptible'... although Levey cleverly suggests a man who is increasingly haunted."
Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (three stars) – "This is the summer of Howard Brenton... Büchner and Brenton’s Danton is the personification of the limits of legitimacy of the French Revolution. Toby Stephens makes an excellent Danton... in Act Three of this uninterrupted 110-minute presentation, Stephens seems to grow physically stockier, as Danton manifests as the rollicking bruiser who symbolised the Revolution’s vigour in so many ways. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is a slighter figure who sometimes raises his voice, but never shouts ... The fiery anti-Danton demagoguery is left to Alec Newman as Saint-Just, at once impassioned and yet heartless. Fine performances, but the play itself has not aged well... not even Brenton’s playwriting skill and ideological dedication, combined with Michael Grandage’s directorial control... can make these serial debates... vibrant."
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – "In this version of the play by Howard Brenton, Danton shrugs at fate. He claims to ‘flirt’ with death. ‘History has a way of biting you in the arse,’ is how Mr Brenton makes the hedonistic Danton put it ... Much as I like Mr Stephens’s swagger... I suspect Danton should be more earthy ... On the whole Mr Brenton’s script is demanding, compressed, even poetic ... Director Michael Grandage keeps things spare but could he not have souped things up a bit to accentuate the difference between Danton and his ascetic rival Robespierre? Elliot Levey underplays Robespierre but Alec Newman fares better as the vindictive, inaptly-named Saint-Just ... And the guillotine is a work of art all in itself."
Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) – "As this play demonstrates with great gusto, the violence which gave birth to Republican France was fed by a death-cult... This is a young man's play, Georg Büchner died of typhoid at 23. A youthful, raging piece it is: quite pointless to expect measure and subtlety, even as adapted by Howard Benson ... Michael Grandage's play is sparsely set, rapid moving and lit dramatically... it makes the most of all ranting opportunities ... Chief ranter is a swaggering, sensual Toby Stephens as Danton... Elliot Levey's neat, dessicated Robespierre speaks for a colder 'Virtue' ... Robespierre's cold, neurotic 'incorruptible' ideology is perfectly contrasted with Danton's sexy physicality, boyish bravado and gnawish regret for the many deaths he himself orchestrated... In a prison scene near the end of the play we at last see Danton's touching abandonment of bravado... The guillotine makes its first and last appearance as the set creaks open."