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Review Round-up: Kleist's Prince Bows at Donmar

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Hot on the heels of the National’s Danton's Death comes The Prince of Homburg at the Donmar Warehouse, another historical epic charting a European revolutionary’s fall from grace.

The play, written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1809, takes place in 17th century Prussia rather than 18th century France and follows the idealistic Prince of Homburg as he is sentenced to death for disobeying military orders, despite returning victorious from the battlefields of Fehrbellin.

Von Kleist’s original verse is given a modern lick of prose paint by writer Dennis Kelly and director Jonathan Munby. The title role is tackled by Charlie Cox, whose Prince is counterpointed by Ian McDiarmid’s villainous Elector of Brandenburg. The production opened at the Donmar Warehouse on 22 July 2010 and will run until 4 September.

Did this Prince divide or conquer the critics?

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Jonathan Munby’s revival… certainly looks like a Donmar production: torches, flagstones, big dark wall, great lighting (by Neil Austin), doomy music… Ian McDiarmid plays the Elector of Brandenburg as a viperish intellectual sadist... 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 … Charlie Cox is a splendid, straightforward Romantic prince… 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... 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.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Heinrich von Kleist's great German play… has been given a new ending by Dennis Kelly which perverts the play's meaning and undermines an otherwise fascinating evening… To the Nazis, (the play) was clearly a vindication of obedience to a strict military code; and both Kelly's version, with its references to the "Fatherland", and Jonathan Munby's production, with its orgy of Prussian heel-clicking, treat the play as if it were guilty by association with national socialism. But Kleist's play is infinitely more subtle and morally ambiguous than that… The tantalising thing is that when Munby's production sticks close to the original, it is very good. Angela Davies's design, Neil Austin's lighting and Dominic Haslam's music lend the opening sequence a phantasmagoric quality. Charlie Cox also catches perfectly the uncertainty of the prince himself torn between cowardice and heroism… But the dilemma of this production is expressed by Ian McDiarmid's oddly confusing performance as the Elector. On one level, McDiarmid gives us a neat display of manipulative irony and handles the potential military insurrection with an amused guile. But gradually McDiarmid turns into a barking autocrat shrieking ‘I want rules and order.’ And, while it would be unfair to reveal the new ending, I can only say that it is not what Kleist wrote or intended.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (three stars) – “The Prince of Homburg is a romantic soldier, prone to mooning over Princess Natalia and fabulous lines like ‘Night out here is like a Persian bride, it wraps its hair around you like perfume…” Beautiful Charlie Cox resolves the psychological atavism of this transition by playing it like a high-spirited, good-hearted sixth former: it works. Natalia is an honest performance by Sonya Cassidy, and brother-officers click and bark with convincing brittleness and occasional Germanic soupiness… But the real star is Ian McDiarmid as the Elector: a bleak, arid slave to principle; a tick-box tyrant… Curiously, the bleaker and odder and more Prussian the outlook gets in Act II, the more absurdities draw huffs of hilarity from a tense audience… Expect no happy ending. But any Nazi seeking to recruit this play to the cause wouldn’t end it quite as Kleist, Kelly and Munby do. The last ‘Heils!’ ring as hollow as the thunk of any guillotine.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “Here is a play about the clash between military heroism and martial law. Should it go for laughs? Last night's audience of Donmar friends and supporters certainly thought so… Every time these men clicked their heels and slammed their chests in salute, young women in the stalls giggled. You'd have thought they were watching an episode of TV's Blackadder…The audience's reaction was the result of Jonathan Munby's relentlessly modern direction. He has his actors gurn and gawp and play things for humour in places where far greater power could come from sticking to the rigidity of the military codes of the 19th-century Prussia setting. Charlie Cox's prince is convincingly headstrong but there is a disastrous scene when he tells a friend that he has been sentenced to death… Mr McDiarmid, despite his amazingly deep voice, is miscast. He hams and camps and rolls his eyes…There should be more to admire in this show… In this director's insufficiently serious grasp, it underwhelms.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Dennis Kelly’s rendition suggests the modernity of Kleist’s writing, particularly in its scrutiny of anxieties and embarrassments. However, the highly-strung wit of Kleist’s verse is lost in a welter of rhetoric, and Kelly has unnecessarily amended Kleist’s ending. Charlie Cox effectively evokes the prince’s adolescent brand of disquiet… Better when passionate than when contemplative, he too often seems merely earnest. More memorable, though not happily so, is Ian McDiarmid as the Elector, who veers between a Blackadder-ish smoulder and the strangled rage of a cartoon fascist. He has moments of wintry gravity, yet his performance is weirdly mannered. There is some deft work from Harry Hadden-Paton and David Burke. But Jonathan Munby’s production is either too static or bombastic, and it accentuates without much subtlety the play’s relevance to Hitler’s Germany… True, there are flickers of familiar Donmar dazzle, mainly in the stronger second half, and Angela Davies’s design is ingenious. But The Prince of Homburg is a misfire from this so often excellent theatre.”
  • - Lydia Onyett


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