Arts: Theatre - Schiller's closet thriller

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The Independent Culture
JUST LIKE Henry IV and Julius Caesar, Schiller's Don Carlos is one of those plays in which the title character is not considered the centre of attention. The conventional wisdom is that Schiller's interests expanded during the lengthy course of completion. Carlos's passion for the wife of his father, the king, becomes subsumed into a broader political struggle between the forces of tyranny and a youthful spirit of freedom.

Its characterisation of the king demonstrates Schiller's powers of empathy in the way it shows how this monarch is the victim of his own frozen authoritarianism. The characterisation of Posa, Carlos's humanitarian friend, shows his playwright's political prescience in the way it dramatises the compromising subterfuges to which idealism may resort.

Gale Edwards' new production does not stand such wisdom on its head; but, thanks to a stellar performance from Rupert Penry-Jones in the title- role, Carlos for once emerges as a source of persistent fascination, and not just a ranting, overwrought means to an end.

Exuding a dishevelled, unconscious glamour, Penry-Jones's tall, blond, black-suited hero is half Hamlet in the sudden, quixotic wit with which he twits and disconcerts the court and half a wide-eyed dangerous innocent whose face crumples into tears when he is foiled. Impressively, he speaks verse with no hint of a dread "poetry voice". It is a wonderfully unforced performance, capable of encompassing moments of casual, off-hand humour and pure, guileless emotion.

You might think that the studio dimensions of the Other Place would be inadequate for a tragedy on which the fate of three nations hangs, and there are moments when lines like "They love me in the Netherlands!" at such close quarters, make it hard to keep a straight face. This is, though, a closet drama and Edwards intensifies the claustrophobia. Characters have clandestine encounters in corridors creepily suggested by shafts of light slanting across the gloomy stage.

The great ideological confrontation between the king and Posa somehow fails to make the requisite impact: you have the impression that the scene has been unduly pruned. But, though his busy performance would benefit from stretches of stillness, John Woodvine strongly communicates the isolation of the king and Ray Fearon's Posa skilfully mingles troubled decency with a revealing touch of self-regard about his own virtue. Most memorable is the Grand Inquisitor of John Rogan, all the more chilling in his inhuman absolutism for being a little blind, elderly, groping Irishman.

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