Don Carlos, Crucible, Sheffield

Power behind the throne
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The Independent Culture

Michael Grandage's marvellous production of Don Carlos is an object lesson in doing without objects - in how richly different atmospheres can be summoned up in the theatre using beautifully graduated lighting effects and through the psychologically expressive arrangement of characters in almost bare space.

Michael Grandage's marvellous production of Don Carlos is an object lesson in doing without objects - in how richly different atmospheres can be summoned up in the theatre using beautifully graduated lighting effects and through the psychologically expressive arrangement of characters in almost bare space.

This is Grandage's last production as the associate director of the Sheffield Crucible (he continues in his other role as the artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse), and his mastery of the Crucible's mighty but difficult 70ft thrust stage is a sight to behold. Victoria Hamilton, who played Rosalind in Grandage's award-winning As You Like It here, once said that if you run from one end of the space to the other, you can feel the wind rustling in your hair.

Though his first production here was of Orton's farce What The Butler Saw, the huge three-sided stage was not the natural home of comedy because of the triple focus it required from the audience. But this Don Carlos demonstrates how ideal an environment the Crucible is for the dark grandeur and solemnity of tragedy.

In Christopher Oram's lovely, spare design, the repressive Renaissance court of Philip II is conveyed in a delicate palette of blacks, silvers and a faded brown so that it feels like a shocking effrontery when Peter Eyre's Cardinal Grand Inquistor makes his last-minute entry hobbling on sticks like some enormous scarlet insect.

The sound of liturgical music swarms into political scenes. The black-coffered ceiling glowers down over the set with its steep perspectives, while the windows are barred like those of a cell. The corrupt Catholic world of shadows and subterfuge, of skulking, monitoring monks who may be courtiers in disguise, is evoked with insidious power and sombre, painterly flair.

Schiller's great drama is a contest between the forces of tyranny and the youthful spirit of freedom, one in which the intensity of Carlos's passion for the wife of his father becomes painfully and problematically subsumed. As King Philip, Derek Jacobi is on magnificent form, exuding the terrible loneliness of power and the touchy pride that prevents a monarch reaching out to a troublesome son with the proper paternal solicitude. In his relationship with Richard Coyle's prickly, impulsive and warmly realistic Carlos, there are affinities with that between Shakespeare's Henry IV and Hal.

This production is refreshingly uncynical about the friendship between the prince and the idealistic young Posa (the charismatic Elliot Cowan), to whom Philip, in his aching desire for a man at court whom he can trust, appeals. The famous encounter between the emotionally constipated king and the incorruptible newcomer is all the more thrilling here for the sense you get from Jacobi that he sees in Posa a self-that-might-have-been, a principle so opposite to his own that it has an illicitly magnetic attraction.

Grandage's production is a specially commissioned adaptation by Mike Poulton, which has a much more vivid immediacy than the one the RSC used in its staging in the mid-1990s. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Grand Inquistor's scathing condemnation of Philip for developing a kind of crush on Posa that weakens the Counter-Reformation: "Your iron rule - sixty years of faith/ dissolve in an idle hour of girlish infatuation." Those last two words are a perfect betrayal of his own desiccated cynicism. In making the principled love between Posa and the prince move an audience to uncynical tears, this production brings Grandage's reign on this stage to deeply affecting close.

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