Review: Danton’s Death

George Johnston, noted Faustus at the Fringe blogger, reviews the last show he saw before Edinburgh.

danton's death french revolution grandage michael grandage national national theatre oliver olivier theatre toby stephens

Olivier Theatre, National

Directed by Michael Grandage

Danton’s Death charts the demise of Georges Danton, a leading figure in the events of the French Revolution. It was written by Georg Buchner while he himself was in hiding for revolutionary activities in 1835.

After having taken part in the September Massacres of 1792 Danton becomes more moderate and, in the spring of 1734, calls for an end to the ‘Terror’. This brings him into a terrible conflict with Robespierre, who believes that the revolution needs blood if it is to survive.

Stepping into the Olivier Theatre for the first time in a few years I was struck by the scale and grandeur of the place. Hundreds of lights dotted the ceiling, while the enormous set was made up of huge pieces of wood with a balcony area cutting along the middle.

The pace of the piece was kept up despite the ending already having been mean-spiritedly given away in the title. Short, sharp well choreographed scenes punctuated by rapid scene changes where huge wooden shutters were occasionally opened up to reveal a shaft of sunlight coming through the windows behind. The props and costumes used added to this, effectively recreating a picture of late 18th century France.

Toby Stephens’ Danton faces up to Elliot Levey’s haunting Robespierre.

Toby Stephens is certainly a crowd-puller in the title role but wasn’t the best actor onstage. Lines such as “history has a way of coming back and biting you in the arse, eh General?” were delivered more like Lord Flashheart than a blood-stained, battle-weary revolutionary. Indeed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d shouted ‘WOOF’ at one of his prostitutes mid-scene.

The supporting cast did better. Elliot Levey as Robespierre was sickeningly self-righteous during his monologues, yet also gave the audience a believable moment of hesitation at condemning to death a man who had once been his friend. Alec Newman gave an unsettlingly cold and calculating performance Saint-Just, manipulating the convention into sentencing Danton.

The final guillotine scene is the highlight of the show. The massive wooden panelling gives way as the set folds back on itself to reveal a large guillotine standing menacingly above centre stage. Director Michael Grandage must have borrowed something out of the magician’s box to produce a finale so terrifyingly realistic. As the audience member next to me visibly winced I could only be captivated by this gruesome end to an enthralling play.