“Take your time,” says Alex Kingston’s cunning Lady Milford to fiercely principled Ferdinand (Max Bennett) in “Luise Miller.” That’s exactly what Michael Grandage’s scalding production of Schiller’s thriller doesn’t do. Grabbing this barely seen story by the scruff of its neck, a dynamite cast hurtles through the spellbinding tale of young love wrecked by rank as if their lives, or those of their characters, depend upon it — which, as the superbly tense climax reveals, they do.
Dating from 1784, the play formed the basis of an opera by Verdi and it’s not hard to see why. Characters are boldly drawn and the engrossingly twisty plot is driven by a succession of scorching two-way confrontations.
There’s trouble afoot from the very beginning with Chancellor’s son Ferdinand dangerously in love with lowly Luise (Felicity Jones), the devout sixteen-year old daughter of a court violinist (Paul Higgins). However, the malign Chancellor (Ben Daniels, thrillingly on the edge of rage) is determined that Ferdinand marry Lady Milford, the immensely experienced mistress to the (unseen) Prince in order to shore up his own corrupt power base.
What makes the play so gripping is that although the trajectory is ultimately as tragic as initially suspected — a sense of doom is sketched by Adam Cork’s soundscape — the plotting keeps seeing plans and expectations reversed, with passion and religious vows tested to the utmost.
Stakes are kept ideally high by the Chancellor’s henchman Wurm (gleamingly malign, fast-thinking John Light) who channels his own lust for Luise into a plot to destroy her. The slow, vicious unfolding of his snare has an Iago-like intensity that holds the audience spellbound.
Having produced such a tense set-up, the working out of the consequences provides undeniably fewer thrills in the second half. But that only allows audiences to savor the quality of the acting.
Felicity Jones, in particular, comes into her own discovering her mettle as her love and life become imperiled. And Max Bennett takes what could be a prig of a character and fires him up with a controlled passion which is never allowed to boil over. Their final showdown which in other hands could be a case of dull inevitability, is given true tension because of the controlled intensity surging between them.
That’s the hallmark of the acting throughout. On Peter McKintosh’s high-walled black brick set, the actors are wrapped in the alternately velvet and steel glow of Paule Constable’s shafts of light. The actors appear isolated but the acting, as in Grandage’s recent “King Lear,” is all about connections aching to be made.
Although the reason this play has almost never been performed in the U.K. is initially hard to fathom, the melodrama of the second half provides the answer. But Mike Poulton’s punchy translation makes a tremendous case for it — that and the sheer heat burning off a cast at full throttle.