For me a political play needs to explain its context adequately for its audience, and to give its characters some depth. This production of Georg Buchner’s ‘Danton’s Death’ at the National sadly does neither. And I so wanted to like it, starring as it does the fabulous Toby Stephens as the title part in question. But not even his acting prowess could save this play from being something of a turkey.
It is set in 1794 in post revolutionary France, during the so-called Reign of Terror. George Danton had previously been a supporter of the revolution, and played an active part in it. But he has now become somewhat indifferent to politics, preferring instead to spend his time between the arms of his wife, and any arms in the nearest brothel he can find. His new enemy is Robespierre, who is busy executing leading figures in the revolution who he previously fought alongside. At least I think that is roughly the historical context – the play didn’t really help out in a massive way by giving any back story, so I may be a bit hazy on some of the detail.
Good as Stephens undoubtedly is (please refer to my recent review of ‘The Real Thing’ at the Young Vic if you need a reminder), he cannot rescue either the part or Danton from his inevitable sticky end. This heavyweight play gives the audience no relief in the form of an interval either – just 2 hours of heavy duty moralising. And it also pains me to say that the couple of parts for women in the shape of Danton’s wife and a prostitute he cavorts with near the beginning are very unconvincingly played by their respective actresses.
Two good moments eased the weighty crusade of righteousness – one was a rousing rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’, and the other was the final guillotine scene, which will have audiences debating long after the play has finished how they achieved the special effects. I suspect that they didn’t really behead the actors, but someone should suffer for this turgid and frankly boring production.