'Prince of Homburg'

Munby presents Kleist's ideas as veering between comedy and tragedy.

Heroism vs. obedience, honor vs. cowardice, personal freedom vs. military authority: Dualisms already govern Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 drama but Jonathan Munby’s audacious production adds one more. Armed with Dennis Kelly’s new version, Munby presents Kleist’s ideas as veering between comedy and tragedy. Unexpected and increasingly engaging, his approach rescues a play famous for its austerity.

The Prince of Homburg

Even the central character of the young prince (Charlie Cox) embodies a dilemma. On the one hand he’s the fearless head of the Brandenburg cavalry who has, by huge risk-taking, ensured two major victories; on the other he’s a dreamer. Literally. He opens the play bathed in Neil Austin’s pearly gray moonlight in a trance-like state witnessed by the entire court, not least the unbending elector (Ian McDiarmid).

The prince’s fascination with his dreams leads him to pay less than close attention to the elector’s orders as issued by Julian Wadham’s drily exasperated Marshall Dorfling. In the heat of battle, he seizes the initiative and quells the invading Swedes, but in doing so countermands the elector’s express orders. Victory for the fatherland comes at a price. Or does it?

Despite being arrested, court-martialed and imprisoned, the prince remains comically buoyant, naively believing the elector, his adoptive uncle, to be merely following form and that he will be released. Thanks to his best friend Hohenzollern (marvelously direct Harry Hadden-Paton), he finally realizes the high seriousness of his position — his death warrant has been signed — and everything changes as he tries ever more desperate tactics to save his skin.

His character shift in the prison-cell is the first of the production’s trademark switches of sympathy. As his time runs out, the plot grows twistier and in each scene of desperation that follows, the audience constantly find itself in fascinatingly contrasting relationships to the characters. Initially encouraged to see this hero’s fear of death as natural, it’s then presented as despicable.

Those switching perspectives are strengthened by Munby’s encouragement of humor, most obviously in McDiarmid’s riskily ripe elector. His knowing, high comic performance undeniably skirts absurdity, but its comic extremity works for a character who plays his opponents like violins. It also allows for his sudden vocal flashes of thunderous power to have real impact.

Cox, too, reveals unexpected range. Alert but relaxed, his easy fast reactions make him appear immensely attractive. But he also acquires weight as he takes control of his destiny.

The production’s strength lies in its ability to dramatize and control the script’s high contrasts. That’s achieved because its stern world of officialdom is so evocatively achieved.

From the restraining empire-line of the women’s white dresses to the forbidding gray (but never dour) tone of the high back wall, Angela Davies’ uncluttered production design sustains the claustrophobic mood. That is further enhanced by the chill of Christopher Shutt’s battle-strewn soundscape interleaved with Dominic Haslam’s vocal music.

Prussian emblems on Davies’ military costumes consciously pre-echo the notion of nationhood that stalks the play. Not for nothing did Hitler particularly favor it. But his response was a misreading, a fact made plain by Kelly’s new ending.

Replacing Kleist’s final ambiguity with an unequivocal dramatic shock will doubtless ruffle purists’ feathers. Yet not only is the moment properly motivated, it’s also the logical extension of the production’s fresh approach. Having dared to offset the darkness with comedy, the climactic plummet into undiluted tragedy has real punch.

Prince of Homburg

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £29 $45 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Heinrich von Kleist in a new version by Dennis Kelly. Directed by Jonathan Munby.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Angela Davies; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Christopher Shutt; music, Dominic Haslam; movement, Lailo Diallo; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin. Opened, reviewed July 27, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Prince of Homburg - Charlie Cox The Elector - Ian McDiarmid Count Hohenzollern - Harry Hadden-Paton Natalia - Sonya Cassidy The Electress - Siobhan Redmond Colonel Kottwitz - David Burke Marshall Dorfling - Julian Wadham Colonel Hennings - Simon Coates Count Truchuss - William Hoyland Page - Jolyon Coy Captain, Farmer - Mark Theodore Bork, Farmer's Wife - Lizzie Winkler

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