Michael Grandage’s penultimate production as artistic director of the Donmar, Schiller’s bourgeois tragedy Luise Miller, may not have the grandiloquence and epic sweep of his Don Carlos six years ago (which came from the Sheffield Crucible to the West End), but it’s a different kettle of German herring altogether.
Schiller’s third play is written in prose, as opposed to the sonorous verse of Don Carlos, and centres on the tragic consequences of a social mismatch in the love affair of a musician’s daughter, Luise (Felicity Jones), and his pupil, Ferdinand (Max Bennett), who happens to be the son of the Chancellor (Ben Daniels).
Things start to go wrong when the Chancellor tries to force his son’s marriage to an English courtesan, Lady Milford (Alex Kingston), thereby thwarting young love, consolidating his corrupt power base and easing his political position with the unseen Prince.
It’s the stuff of opera, and indeed Verdi’s musical version soars to another dimension altogether, with beautiful choruses and great duets. But in Mike Poulton’s sinewy and idiomatic new version (from an unaccredited literal translation), the silences and the dramatic tension provide the music, and the production keeps it all fierce and feral.
The acting is especially good in scenes where confrontations – between the Chancellor and his son, or Lady Milford and Luise – take unexpected turns and swivel the play round in another direction. Even without knowing Schiller in German, you know this is great writing.
And Alex Kingston really takes off in the scene where Luise’s simple virtue and honesty – burningly transmitted by Felicity Jones — reduce her to a shattered husk who knows about love but not how to experience it. The plot is propelled, too, by a letter dictated under duress, the swearing of a holy oath, a smashed violin, a sudden duel. And poison in the last act, natch.
Two agents of gossip and destruction are played, respectively, by a smoothly extravagant David Dawson as a one-man gadfly rumour factory at court, and by a viperish John Light as the politicking Wurm who turns, but not enough.
Bennett and Jones are tremendous as the distant cousins of Romeo and Juliet, and Luise’s parents are nicely done by Finty Williams as a bustling, fussing peasant mum and Paul Higgins as her impassioned, selfless father, making the most of his Scottish accent.
The play is Schiller’s most popular in his homeland. But apart from a reading at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 in a much more florid translation by Robert David MacDonald (titled Passion and Politics, a direct translation of the original title, Kabale und Liebe) this must count, I reckon, as a British premiere.
Good on Grandage, who supplies the familiar Donmar works with Peter McKintosh’s simple grey set of brick walls, high windows and a balustrade, beautifully lit by Paul Constable, with a sound score by Adam Cork that seeps from Haydn quartets into swells and hums of modern musical foreboding.