The powers-that-be at the RSC have woken up to the fact that there are playwrights other than Chekhov and Ibsen who didn't write in English and have graciously allowed London theatre-goers a chance to see this European classic.
It ought to be a matter of some shame that this is the first production of Schiller's play that the RSC has put on but it probably won't be. It's a shame that it's so rarely performed and, consequently, better known in this country for the Verdi opera, because Don Carlos is a powerful drama that takes a lot of its themes from Hamlet but wraps them up in an impassioned plea for liberty.
In fact, the play should really be called Posa because it is the Marquis of Posa, nobly played here by Ray Fearon, who acts as the mouthpiece for Schiller. The action may be set in the 16th century but the words were for the 18th century audience - indeed for all time. 'The century is not right for my ideas/my time is yet to come,' he says. Noble sentiments indeed, but there's a sneaking suspicion that Posa is too smug for his own good and Fearon brings out the self-righteousness as well.
The story is full of twists and turns. Carlos, the prince of Spain, is in love with his stepmother, to whom he was once betrothed. His friend Posa urges him to fight for the Flemish rebels against the tyranny of his father's governor, the Duke of Alba. Carlos endeavours to declare his love to the queen but his secret is discovered by her lady-in-waiting, Princess Eboli (in love with Carlos herself), who betrays him to the king.
Robert David MacDonald's translation is taut, compared to Schiller's convoluted blank verse (although he does get a bit clichéd at times). And Gale Edwards' production moves the complex plot along at a rattling pace with some standout performances: Rupert Penry-Jones is a gawky, agitated Carlos, too hot-headed to be perceived as an Iberian Hamlet; Josette Simon is a regal queen; and Claire Price a minx of an Eboli, bursting with sexual frustration for Carlos and scheming like a pouting Machiavelli.
But best of all is John Woodvine's magnificent king. Bearing a disconcerting resemblance to General Pinochet, he begins as a cold-eyed, unflinching despot, incapable of love for his son and determined to rule with the proverbial iron rod. As the play progresses, he slowly disintegrates, unable to trust anyone and hurt by the betrayals around him, he howls his contempt at the world. It's a superb portrayal of a man who can't comprehend that his kingly power doesn't buy personal happiness.
If there is a fault in this production, it is with the wider political context - one doesn't really get a sense of the paranoia and power struggles that are taking place. Edwards' direction treats the play instead like a high-class soap opera, but with acting this good, that's very high class indeed.
Note: The following review dates from the production's original 1999 run at The Other Place, Stratford.
It's a rare experience to see four fine actors all performing at the peak of their form in the same production. Ray Fearon, John Woodvine, Josette Simon and Rupert Penry-Jones transform Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos - a rather long, complex and serious German tragedy - into a thrilling theatrical experience.
The play explores both personal and political issues. Don Carlos, heir to the Spanish throne, loves Elizabeth of France. When his father, King Philip II, decides to marry her himself, Carlos wallows in a hopeless passion for his virtuous step-mother and neglects the call to lead the Spanish Netherlands in a revolt against Imperial Spain and the might of the Catholic Church. Don Carlos was written on the eve of the French Revolution and expresses the idealism of the German Romantics and their faith in the essential goodness of mankind. The director, Gale Edwards, has set her production in the late, late 20th century when these lofty humanitarian ideals seem unrealistic and doomed.
Fearon, the brightest young star in the RSC's firmament, again demonstrates his versatility. In his sure hands, the Marquis of Posa, Carlos's boyhood friend and the principal mouthpiece for Schiller's high hopes of humanity, becomes a determined but quietly-spoken intellectual. All the more powerful for being understated, it's a performance which epitomises this remarkable actor's intelligence and integrity.
Woodvine brings terrifying power and profound insight to King Philip, in a moving performance of depth and complexity. Simon gives us a vibrant and commanding Queen Elizabeth, reconciling the essence of Romanticism with the fire and spirit of a late 20th century woman. And young Penry-Jones rises magnificently to the challenge of playing Carlos; his nervous, unbalanced, tortured crown prince bears the stamp of truth and authenticity.
These four superb central performances generally receive strong support from the rest of the company. But in a production of this quality any weakness is cruelly exposed and Claire Price's portrayal of the predatory and malign Princess Eboli seems melodramatic and unconvincing. Let's hope she uses the experience to learn from the subtlety of Fearon, the passion of Simon, the authority of Woodvine and the honesty of Penry-Jones.
Don Carlos is difficult material; a tragedy teetering on the edge of melodrama, it's full of pitfalls for the actor. This production overcomes them triumphantly. At the end of the evening, The Other Place rang out with the cheers of an audience who realised they had experienced something special in the theatre that night.
Don Carlos opened at The Other Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, 15 June 1999 (previews from 9 June) and continues in repertory until 7 October.