THE ROBBERS The Gate Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
In 1792, the leaders of the French Revolution made Friedrich Schiller an honorary citizen on the grounds that his Sturm und Drang play The Robbers conveyed a revolutionary message similar to their own. Watching Lindsay Posner's impressive studio staging of the piece at the Gate Theatre, you may feel that the accolade was accepted on false pretences, for what is striking is the way that this Shakespearian echo-chamber of a play - begun when Schiller was only 19 - was so prescient not just of the Revolution but of its sobering aftermath as well.

"Fool that I was, I thought I could make the world a better place through terror, and maintain the rule of law by breaking it." Such is the remorseful summing-up of Karl, the noble outlaw who has tried to play Rousseau-esque Robin Hood in the forests of bohemia, but whose ideals are betrayed by the gratuitous violence of some of his band. It's not just the ending, though, that puts his enterprise in question. His villainously resentful younger brother, Franz, having tricked their father into disinheriting him, Karl seems from the outset motivated less by social outrage than by private grievance.

Burningly intense with an anger that looks to be inseparable from self- hatred, Phil McKee's performance communicates, too, the stinging sense of nostalgia Karl feels for the home he has forfeited. If revolution means the desire to overthrow paternal authority, then Karl's qualifications for turning revolutionary are, in any case, more apparent than real, since his true oppressor is his brother not his father.

A close-cropped, keyed-up amalgam of Edmund, Iago and Richard III, Ian Hughes' splendid Franz brings just the right hint of spoofy inverted commas to the experimental villainies of this huffily self-conscious nihilist. You'd be inclined to hiss him, were it not for the odd winningness of some of his more outrageously reductive pronouncements. Why should we honour fathers, when siring a child is such a ludicrous lottery, he wonders. "Did he know how I would turn out?" - in Robert David MacDonald's translation - "I hope not, or I'd want to punish him for going ahead with me."

The play is renowned for bringing out the still-alienated adolescent in its spectators. But the forest scenes, evoked here by a green wash of light on the audience-enveloping walls of Joanna Parker's austere set, present a healthily unromantic view of the outlaws. In weaponry and outfits (black shorts, stocking-masks, etc), they have the sinister feel of contemporary terrorist groups.

Engrossing, despite the frequent patches of sagginess in the play, the production ends with Karl handing himself over to the law, the distraught tears of one member of his gang overlaid by the cynical cackling of another. A stark aural reminder that this hero's progress invites a contradictory response.

n To 26 Aug, The Gate Theatre, Pembridge Road, Notting Hill, London W11. Booking: 0171-229 0706