Theatre Review: Tactful decay

Danton's Death Gate Theatre, London
By the time he died at the age of 23, Georg Buchner had written four unperformed plays. One of these is lost; two of them are ground-breaking masterpieces that will survive as long as theatre does. The Gate now launches a Buchner season beginning with David Farr's production (in his own translation) of Danton's Death (1835). A survey in jagged, jangling snapshots of how the Revolution devours its own children, the play has strong claims to be considered the most astonishing dramatic debut in the world repertoire.

When Communicado staged the piece a few years back, the dominant image was of a wooden crate which spun round and opened up to reveal the various tableaux crammed inside. A comparable feeling of determinism and constriction is achieved in the studio space at the Gate: cast as the manipulable crowd, the audience sits in the thick of the action (or rather inaction) which is played on platforms round the side in a style of pointedly self-conscious theatricality. Danton's existential disgust that men are no more than puppets acting out a scenario penned by fate finds its ironic reflection here.

In the title role Breffni McKenna has just the right kind of fleshiness for this bored, joking dissolute but he lacks the actily weight to suggest the titan Danton once was or the philosophic despair that has driven him to the extremes of world-weary epicurism. At his ideological adversary, the sea-green incorruptible Robespierre, Jamie Newall's sickly spinsterish martinet would make the Angelo of Measure for Measure seem like one of nature's backslappers, always the first to buy a round and the last to leave.

The two best performances, though, come from Thomas Russell, whose fanatical Saint Just addresses us with the calm, sneering, dangerously compelling insolence of the head prefect from hell, and from Milo Twomey who brings a racked sensitivity to the role of the young deputy, Camille Desmoulin. Thrashing in his sleep in the condemned cell, Camille feels the sky pressing down on him like a roof of ice. The play was once described as being like "the last twitches and rattles in the throat that precede death". True enough, except that, reduced to believing that man is nothing but a physiology, Danton and his friends continue to wax philosophical about this state. Life and death, he argues, are just two stages of decomposition, the only difference "in life we decompose more tactfully".

The comedy of that "tactfully" is typical of a translation that combines slangy updating ("the Revolution's Early Retirement Policy") with moments of subtlety and finesse. Here, Robespierre asks for a bloody order to be carried out quickly, not because he has grown "squeamish" these days but because he's feeling "sensitive" - a word which beautifully conveys his capacity for self-deception. The critics were placed, like tricoteuses, on a bench by themselves. To complete the effect, they should have issued us with knitting.

To 18 Oct. Booking: 0171-229 5387