Derek Jacobi comes relatively late to the psychological and political unrest of “Don Carlos,” playing King Philip II, the fearsomely stern father of the crown prince of the title. But scarcely has Jacobi entered the scene, repeating the word “alone” with a gravelly sonority as if some deeply malignant tumor were lodged in his gut, before a ruler hell-bent on terror has a packed theater in his merciless palm. Against the odds given Friedrich Schiller’s own fearsome reputation, that turns out to be a mesmerizing place to be.
The received wisdom is that Schiller has been seriously neglected on the British stage, a debatable assertion when one thinks of the German scribe’s various U.K. productions of late (among them, a Royal Shakespeare Company “Don Carlos” that toured to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in May 2000).
But surely Michael Grandage is the first helmer within memory to direct Schiller’s 1787 masterwork, having himself played the title role — for Nicholas Hytner in 1987 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater. That familiarity helps explain the abiding virtue of a production that begins unpromisingly with the audience choking on incense and scrutinizing various shadowy figures to try to decipher who’s who, only to deepen into a rending father-son drama set against a political backdrop that highlights one forbidding truth: In the world of “Don Carlos,” the Inquisition begins at home.
Grandage may be the most purely, brilliantly intuitive of Britain’s current crop of leading directors (recent credits include “Grand Hotel” at the Donmar and last season’s smashing “Suddenly Last Summer”), and it’s remarkable the degree to which he lands “Don Carlos” both in its time and ours. Every cowl and cloak is in place in the Velazquez-flecked costumes of Christopher Oram, whose open set evokes a gladiatorial ring of an ecclesiastical sort. But barely has Richard Coyle’s tousle-haired Carlos spoken of a father he didn’t even know until he was 6 before the familial agon of Philip II’s court starts to look awfully similar to some British royals of today.
Mike Poulton’s translation could do without those passages that take the material toward soft-core porn (“naked thrusting in the royal sheets,” if you please), but there’s no ignoring the nightmarish relevance of Philip’s God-granted fundamentalism, as set against the more utopian yearnings of a son who talks of having “awakened from a dream.” And whose issues vis-a-vis daddy make Hamlet’s seem mundane. In a twist on Hamlet’s dilemma, Carlos must confront an all-too-frequently absent father while struggling to consummate the one love he truly craves — that of comely Queen Elizabeth of France (Claire Price, in a lovely perf), who also happens to be Philip’s trophy wife.
Grandage builds the action toward an almost unbearably animated second act, lending the propulsive rhythms of a thriller to what could have been a static excavation from the playwright’s canon. (Nor is he Schiller-ed out: The Donmar is planning, courtesy Phyllida Lloyd, one of four productions of “Mary Stuart” on tap in the U.K. in the next few months.)
The director is helped no end by an assemblage of senior actors, headed by Jacobi, who navigate the mounting betrayals with supreme ease. Ian Hogg’s Duke Alba, the royal adviser, finds sinister modern-day echoes all his own in the pronouncement that he is God’s judge on earth.
In an act of gleeful 11th-hour scene-stealing, Peter Eyre’s Grand Inquisitor pierces his way through designer Paule Constable’s scorching shafts of light, a spidery figure of palpably maleficent grandeur.
The younger generation fares markedly less well, and there’s an embarrassing perf — rare for a Grandage production — from Charlotte Randle as the silliest imaginable lady-in-waiting.
But neither an uninterestingly angst-plagued Coyle nor Elliot Cowan as Carlos’ supposed friend, the Marquis of Posa, stands a chance next to Jacobi’s black-cloaked king, a worthy follow-up in every way to his work with Grandage as Prospero in “The Tempest.” But whereas that play found the actor pleading with the audience for mercy, the flashes of humanity that flare up briefly in Philip are “trampled back” into the king’s beloved word, “dust.” We’re left with Philip feeling “the chill wind of autumn” and an audience in shivering thrall to a great actor’s every word.