Review: Don Carlos, Gielgud Theatre

Taking up residency on Shaftesbury Avenue, this production of Don Carlos directed by Michael Grandage was originated at the Crucible in Sheffield last year and received rave reviews. It is one of Schiller’s less performed works apparently, but I have to admit this was the first time I had seen any his plays (or indeed heard of him, eek!) so a new experience for me.

Don Carlos is passionately in love with Elizabeth, the French Princess to whom he was once betrothed. Carlos’ tyrannical father, King Philip II of Spain, decides to marry Elizabeth himself. The young prince’s hatred for his cold and distant parent knows no bounds. He enlists his oldest friend the Marquis of Posa to act as go-between. But Posa decides to convert Carlos and Elizabeth’s youthful passion into a full scale rebellion against King Philip’s oppressive and bloody regime.

It is heavy stuff, examining the nature of the relationship between church and state, especially with a dictator at the helm, but it is also an intimately personal drama with a King who is incapable of normal human relationships, even with his own son. As Philip II, Derek Jacobi dominates the stage with a hugely brilliant performance of an isolated man, unable to gain the same succour from power as he would from love and equally unable to change.

Around him though are a range of good performances: Richard Coyle’s titular Carlos is a dreamy romantic irreparably damaged by the lack of love from his father and he is brilliantly balanced with Elliot Cowan’s Posa whose idealistic nobility pushes everyone closer to the precipice; Peter Eyre’s Inquisitor is a vision in chilling scarlet and I was also impressed with Una Stubbs and Claire Price as the captive royal wife.

It looked amazing with Christopher Oram’s design evoking a starkly religious Spain and with menacing music and lighting enhancing the mood, this was a highly enjoyable production, fiercely intense and excellently acted. My only complaint was the use of so much incense in the swinging thing they used: it was a little too much especially for us up in the gods as it collected up there and lulled several to doziness!

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