Hold on to your hats: Homburg’s back in town. Last seen at the RSC eight years ago, he’s the dreaming Prussian prince - who disobeys orders, wins the great 17th-century battle of Fehrbellin against the Swedes, and is sentenced to death nonetheless - as commemorated in Henrich von Kleist’s last play before he committed suicide in 1811 aged just 34.
Jonathan Munby’s revival, in a new prose version by Dennis Kelly (from a literal translation by Heike Roemer; the original is in verse), certainly looks like a Donmar production: torches, flagstones, big dark wall, great lighting (by Neil Austin), doomy music – in fact it looks rather like the other Donmar production currently playing at the National, Danton’s Death.
And there’s the same youthful impatience with military authority and political despotism. Ian McDiarmid plays the Elector of Brandenburg as a viperish intellectual sadist, with a voice now like a melodious crow, now like a buzz-saw, teetering on madness. This slightly unbalances the central guessing game of who’s abiding by the rules of honour on the subject of the prince’s salvation or execution.
And there seems to be an odd re-writing of the last act, which is far more mysterious in Neil Bartlett’s RSC version. Still, the play continuously dances between dream and reality and exerts a fascinating grip as the characters shift blame and take initiatives that prove disastrous.
Charlie Cox is a splendid, straightforward Romantic prince, not the existentialist hero you might have expected, horribly impulsive, even though his articulation tends to be slovenly. And there’s a great array of Prussian military types led by David Burke’s stern commanding officer, William Hoyland’s humanely dedicated infantry colonel, bloodied but unbowed, and Julian Wadham’s slyly inflected, very funny, field marshall.
The prince has his Horatio, too, in the devoted figure of Harry Hadden-Paton’s royal count, and there are delicate, pointed contributions from Siobhan Redmond as the Electress and Sonya Cassidy as Natalia, the object of the prince’s hectic desire in a moonlit garden.
Dreams of glory on the eve of battle are achieved in reality, then dashed. Imprisonment is so real it must be a dream, too. These eddies in the play are well caught, as befits a director whose first Donmar production was Calderon’s Life is a Dream, and the chamber theatre echoes with scenes of military and ecclesiastical display. But without any real sense of Kleist’s poetry, and a lot of idiomatic low-grade speech, you don’t feel close to the heart of this strange, slippery European milestone.