Theatre: Robbers' thunder stolen by farce

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the Look Back in Anger of its day. As Nicholas Dromgoole emphasises in the programme notes to Philip Prowse's new production, Schiller's The Robbers is awash with the youthfully rebellious attitudes of the Sturm und Drang drama that caught the mood of the time. Begun when Schiller was 19, it was produced just seven years before the French revolution.

But it is by no means straightforwardly defiant. Its hero, Karl, disinherited through a brother's scheming, reacts against social injustice by taking command of a gang of outlaws but is appalled when their lawlessness turns to indiscriminate atrocity, and the play ends with a symbolic surrender to the forces of order.

In Prowse's production Benedick Bates plays Karl and his machiavellian brother, Franz - siblings who, unlike Edmund and Edgar in Lear, never meet in the play. This doubling can be justified; the extreme physical likeness may, for example, prompt the perception that these very different men have an underlying similarity in that both are rebels - the free-thinking Franz more fundamentally at odds with the universe.

But there's something of a stunt-like quality to the doubling that sits easier in farce than in the turbulent solemnity of Sturm und Drang drama. The sight of Bates popping behind a pillar to swap the specs and suit jacket of twisted intellectual Franz for the stained trenchcoat and self- disgusted superior look of impetuous Karl cannot always be viewed with a straight face. You feel that, at any moment, he'll be meeting himself coming back. Bates has an imposing demeanour, but listening to him deliver two roles alerts you to a lack of vocal variety.

With a glimmering evocation of the Rothers Forest at the back, Prowse's design creates a split-stage effect at the front, a ploy that allows dead or sleeping bodies to remain as ironic presences through subsequent scenes or to resurrect accusingly. The robbers are young thugs with modern suits, balaclava masks and blasting sub-machine guns. There's a certain black comedy in the growing gulf between this rabble and their philosophically agonised leader.

"Why should men succeed when they behave like ants, but fail when they show themselves like gods? Is that the limitation of man's destiny?" queries Karl, and the audience laughed out loud in sympathy when, from the forest, a gruff voice piped up: "I don't know!"

Robert David MacDonald's translation has vigour and bite, but bad playing from some of the cast ("Dead! Dead!! Dead!!!" shrieks Sophie Ward's hollow heroine, escalating with absurd evenness) and the fact that the play's soliloquies are full of the cosmic aggrievedness of adolescence means you sometimes feel you are listening to an opera that's been shorn of its music. The Robbers as set music can, in fact, be savoured from tomorrow at this Festival when the Royal Opera presents I Masnadieri, one of a showcase of four operas here with librettos based on Schiller plays.