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 The Theatreguide.London Review

For the archive, we have filed two past productions of Don Carlos on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want.

Don Carlos
The Pit       Autumn 1999

Schiller's rarely-performed play is an intense study in love, honour, idealism and practical politics that rises to the level of Shakespearean tragedy at best, and sinks to the excesses of nineteenth-century melodrama at worst.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's new production finds many of the highs but also most of the lows, and the end product is a somewhat shapeless jumble with only brief flashes of the power the play can have at its best.

The play is set in Renaissance Spain, with Prince Carlos (Rupert Penry-Jones) longing for the love of his cold and imperious father Philip (John Woodvine) while at the same time struggling with his passion for the King's new bride (Josette Simon) and coping with the interference and plotting of court politicians.

The play also brings in the plight of Spain's rebellious Netherland territories, the power of the Inquisition, and the somewhat anachronistic voice of revolutionary democracy, in the person of Carlos' dear friend Posa (Ray Fearon).

(Shakespeareans among us will already have spotted similarities to Henry IV and Hamlet; and indeed Shakespearean echoes, both verbal and structural, abound.)

One problem with the text that director Gale Edwards has not solved is that it keeps shifting focus. Carlos and his hunger for both paternal and romantic love are the centre of the action for the first hour, but he then almost disappears from the play until the end.

In the meantime our attention and our emotional involvement are directed, in turn, to Posa's fervent idealism, Philip's discovery of the emptiness in his life, and the motivations and passions (honourable or not) of various secondary figures.

Since it's hard for us to know who and what to care about, it's hard for us to stay focused, and the play begins to meander, with the melodramatic plot twists and purple passages becoming ever more apparent and distracting.

It doesn't help that the direction is generally heavy-handed, with too many scenes plodding turgidly rather than catching fire.

The few scenes that work -- the almost farcical moment when Carlos comes to what he thinks is an assignation with the Queen and finds another woman, and the Shavian dialogue between Philip and Posa -- hint at what could be done with the rest of the play in more inventive hands.

Perry-Jones captures the innocent virtue of the unformed young man in the early scenes, but is less convincing when the final act forces him to take over Posa's role as philosophical spokesman.

Fearon does the philosopher well, the melodramatic hero less effectively. Woodvine is allowed a few moments when the King who has dehumanised himself in the name of his royal responsibilities senses what he has sacrificed, but Simon can find little to do with the role of Queen.

I reassert that the play itself poses great problems to any director and cast, with its formless mix of genres and tones. So to say that the RSC have not triumphed over it is to be regretful more than critical.

Gerald Berkowitz



Don Carlos
Gielgud Theatre     Spring 2005

There is a fifteen-minute scene near the end of the first half of this revival of Friedrich Schiller's 1784 drama in which the icy and authoritarian King Philip II of Spain encounters a young nobleman with republican sympathies.

The young man gets to lay out his utopian vision and the king, surprisingly without rancour, explains in realpolitik terms just why it can never come true.

And for those fifteen minutes one of the rarest things in all of world drama happens - ideas come alive and two men just debating issues become as dramatic and theatrically exciting as any sword fight or special effect could be.

Unfortunately those may be almost the only fifteen minutes in this three-hour drama in which you will not be tempted to fall asleep.

Michael Grandage's production is beautifully acted, skilfully directed and atmospherically designed. But far too rarely does it ever come alive.

This is Museum Theatre, the unfaultably polished and professional revival of a good-for-you classic, the sort of thing the RSC and National Theatre used to do in their darkest days and that many provincial repertory theatres (This production transfers from Sheffield) still do.

I can't tell you anything wrong about this production. I have nothing but praise for the performances of Derek Jacobi, who bravely represses all his natural charm to create a chilling portrait of the almost dehumanized King.

Or for Richard Coyle as the title character, the prince whose romantic personality is so absolutely opposite to his father's (not to mention the fact that he's in love with his father's new wife) that they might as well be inhabiting separate planets.

Or for Elliot Cowan as the prince's idealistic friend, or for Claire Price as the unwilling apex of the father-son triangle. Or for any of the others in the large cast.

And Schiller's play is a rich and complex one, the work of a Romantic looking at the Renaissance and realising that protestantism, nationalism, idealism and romantic love were all really the same thing, assertions of the primacy of individual feelings that posed a horrifying threat to the political and religious status quo.

The play is more successful than you might imagine possible in connecting the private father-son drama to, on the one hand, the multiple intrigues of court, church and diplomacy, and on the other, the ideas and themes openly expressed and debated by the characters.

Michael Grandage's direction is fluid, Christopher Oram's design - a series of dark rooms in which characters are pinspotted or seen vaguely through the gloom and haze - is pictorially beautiful.

And, isolated moments aside, it simply does not come alive.

I am inclined to recommend it anyway, simply because what the play has to say is so interesting and so much about the production is well done. But I must include the caveat that you may have to fight to stay awake.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Don Carlos - Barbican Pit 1999; Gielgud Theatre 2005

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