A censer swings hypnotically back and forth across the stage, sending out gusts of stifling incense over the stalls. We're in 17th-century Spain, and the oppressiveness of the Catholic, priest-ridden court of Philip II is brilliantly conveyed in the gloom of Christopher Oram's spare, louring set with its barred, prison-like windows and the infinitely subtle lighting by Paule Constable, which sculpts sepulchral atmospheres out of the space. This is a fearful domain of informers disguised as monks, of obsession with heresy and of the use of "terror" (a word with a modern toll to it) to suppress any spring-like bids for freedom that try to push through the permanent winter of rigid orthodoxy.
Michael Grandage's production of Schiller's great 1787 tragedy won uniformly rapturous reviews when it opened in Sheffield. But in this West End transfer, it seems to have achieved an even greater pitch of intensity. The last half hour, as the terrible waste of youth and the closing down of possibility grind forward like some uncontrolled waking nightmare, is one of the most emotionally wringing sequences that I have ever experienced in a theatre.
At the heart of this play is the tortured relationship between Philip of Spain and his eponymous unstable, freedom-loving son. The woolly-haired, wonderfully natural Richard Coyle has grown in power in the transition to the character. He brings a superbly bitter, mocking, end-of-his-tether humour to Carlos, as the character dashes himself against the burning ice block of his father's aloof distaste. Relations between the two were never good. The mother died in childbirth and now, by a hideous irony, Philip has married the very girl, Princess Elizabeth (Claire Price), whom Carlos loves. This sense of emotional usurpation is compounded when the young man's best friend, the Marquis of Posa (Elliot Cowan) returns to court to fire the Prince's idealistic support for a rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands. Once again, Philip muscles in - seeing in Posa the son he wishes he had had.
As the king, Derek Jacobi gives one of the finest performances of his career, and it's all the more admirable because to some extent he is having to play directly against his own personality. The reined-in hauteur; the explosively punctilious manner of speaking; the flinching recoil from the mere touch of his son ("Spare us the playhouse pathos," he rasps in Mike Poulton's mordant translation, as Carlos kneels beseechingly before him) - all these bespeak a man who has let childless priests replace his heart with a dogmatic rule book.
But the brilliance of Jacobi's performance resides in two related aspects. One is that, without for a second sentimentalising the character, he gives tiny hints of the better person Philip might been have before religion got to him. You see this in sense of mysterious near-nostalgia with which he probingly gazes into the eyes of Posa. The other is that he always checks himself, and becomes even more viciously autocratic - petty, even - after these moments of weakness.
Peter Eyre is a truly frightening Grand Inquisitor, like an enormous, blind, red bug, shaking with fastidious fury between a pair of walking sticks. Not a poster boy for tolerance. In short, this is a triumph.
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