For years, Schiller has been box office poison in the UK. It’s hard to see why, as he’s a superb dramatist whose plays mix big political themes with personal dramas - even if the verse can veer to the bombastic .
But no one can have any such complaints about Mike Poulton’s taut adaptation for Chichester. This is Schiller brought thrillingly to life and Angus Jackson’s production is gripping throughout.
There are moments of incomprehension – almost inevitable when 11 hours of text is crammed into two and a half hours and when much of the play’s actions focuses on unknown characters fighting scarce-remembered battles. It’s fair to say that most British audiences will have a sketchy knowledge of the 30 Years War and it can be hard to keep track of everything that’s going on.
At the heart of the play, Iain Glen is a powerful presence as a rather world-weary and troubled Wallenstein. This is a man torn between a soldier’s duty to his commander and his own personal ambition. Much of the play centres on his hesitation about whether to ally with the Swedish enemy and declaring war on his Emperor, knowing that failure to do so will lead to his inevitable downfall. It’s a powerful part - a sort of cross between Hamlet and Coriolanus - and Glen does it full justice. He portrays a man worn down by 15 years of war and seeing little chance of peace.
There are strong performances too from Anthony Calf as Octavio, Wallenstein’s best friend and ultimate betrayer, Denis Conway as the thwarted would-be aristocrat Buttler, John McEnery as a slippery politician, Charlotte Emerson as Wallenstein’s scheming sister-in-law, and Tom Brooke as a spectacularly creepy Swedish colonel, materialising and disappearing out of darkness.
It’s only a snapshot of a play, and made me long to see Peter Stein’s Berliner Ensemble production of all three plays over 11 hours. But this is a perfect substitute, a compelling production of a play that Shakespeare would have been proud to own.