A kaleidoscope of short, sharp shocks, George Buchner’s 1835 drama “Danton’s Death” remains almost alarmingly modern in terms of form. As it tears through the politics of the French Revolution, this play proves the then 21-year-old dramatist had fire not only in his belly but in his brain. That fire is counterintuitively but impressively turned to ice in Michael Grandage’s commanding National Theater production.
Although driven by the twin personalities of Danton (Toby Stephens) and Robespierre (Elliot Levey), the play all but spits on the standard bio-drama approach. Buchner sticks to the chronology as the ideological gulf between the two men widens, but he paints an unusually wide canvas by cutting between public and private events as experienced by a dizzyingly vast cast of characters.
In the Reign of Terror of 1794 following the Revolution, the two former allies are immediately presented in opposition to one another. Life-affirming Danton now finds himself at war with Robespierre, whose entire demeanor is the embodiment of his philosophy of “swift, stern and unbending justice.”
Few of the other characters are given much stage time because Buchner is more interested in presenting warring political philosophies: Does a necessary revolution find room for remorse? What price mercy? Is individual freedom antithetical to collective radicialism?
The depiction of an era of poverty-led street-rioting, aristocratic excess, imprisonments and near-constant executions might suggest a production design embracing chaos, a literally bloody mess. But led by Howard Brenton’s starkly streamlined new version, which cuts at least an hour off the traditional running time, Grandage typically welds all the design elements together in order to bring a tighter focus on the play’s obsessive political arguments.
Lighting designer Paule Constable pours shafts of light through windows alternately revealed and hidden by 30-foot-high shutters atop Christopher Oram’s towering, immensely versatile, two-tiered wooden set. Constable not only ignites Oram’s starkly bare stage, she creates contrasting spaces — a dressing room, a courtroom, a prison — and she and Adam Cork’s glowering soundscape keep the action taut by building tension through the transitions between scenes.
Key performances ride the wave of this bravura stagecraft, notably Alec Newman, bristling with frighteningly controlled anger as pious Saint-Just, who will stop at nothing to quell the rebellion whipped by Danton’s rampage.
Newman comes across as the attack dog of Robespierre. Burning with puritanical zeal, Levey’s Robespierre dominates his every scene, and suggests ferocity and repressive power through lazer-like, clipped delivery. As a result, his sole scene of private doubt is mesmerizing.
By contrast, Stephens gives an almost piratical swagger of authority to Danton. Although that suggests a high degree of vanity on Danton’s part, Stephens’ physical ease also paradoxically brings a wholly convincing weight to the character. That in turn adds a surprising degree of recognition to his embrace of death rather than the repression represented by Robespierre’s self-righteousness purity.
That death at the guillotine is shockingly well staged in the production’s final theatrical coup. The lack of character depth in the preceding arguments, which threaten to overwhelm the play, will always prevent “Danton’s Death” from achieving true tragic status. But Grandage’s production is so persuasive that you believe that if you’re going to stage it, this is how to do it.