Focusing on the Terror of 1794, Büchner's 1835 play Danton's Death was written in secret when the 22-year-old author was himself under police interrogation after a failed attempt to rouse the Hessian peasantry.
With a precociously penetrating insight, it looks back to the period when the French Revolution brutally betrayed its ideals by resorting to a blood-soaked tyranny of "virtue". Tormented by his role in the September Massacres, the charismatic Danton finds himself in the ironic and doomed position of representing moderation in the face of his old friend Robespierre's increasing fanaticism.
Michael Grandage's absorbing Olivier revival is at its best in fleshing out the psychological differences that underlie the conflicts of ideology. With his little nervy wig adjustments and squeamish recoil from the touch of others, Elliot Levey's riveting Robespierre lets you see the pained, lonely consciousness of inadequacy that here evidently fuels the Incorruptible's priggish flights of dogmatic fervour. By contrast to his adversary's enabling narrowness, Danton is a humane mass of incapacitating inconsistencies, as is brought out in a splendidly captivating portrayal by Toby Stephens. Veering between witty world-weariness and (before the Tribunal) stormy tirades of self-defence, arrogant belief in his invulnerability and philosophic despair, he strikingly conveys the contradictions in this existentialist rake who partly yearns for the death he strives to defy.
The National's publicity suggests that "Danton's Death has a claim to be the greatest political tragedy ever written". So it feels perverse that, in this production, we are given a pruned account of it. Revising the adaptation he made for an earlier NT staging of the piece in 1982, Howard Brenton has excised the street scenes. These offer vivid vignettes of popular anarchy, as in the episode where a young man is nearly hanged when he identifies himself as a toff by using a handkerchief rather than his fingers to blow his nose. And they contribute to our sense that the play is in two minds – at once indignant that the revolution is offering the people blood rather than bread and so pessimistic about the cruelty and fickleness of the proletariat as to generate Büchner's fatalist belief that individual effort is futile – "just foam on the wave".
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