Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

“I’m sick of this rigmarole”

Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.

The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierre is at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals.

At the heart of the story is Danton, a character with whom I think we were meant to sympathise but I found it hard to like him. He has a conscience about his part in the revolution so far, but I never got a sense of what he had actually done or what he really stood for. This was partly due to Toby Stephens’ performance, full of swaggering arrogance but mostly due to the character, given to grand sweeping musings on the nature of existence, convinced that his popularity will save him from the guillotine and generally quite unlikeable (to me at least). I don’t think I actually like Stephens that much as an actor so I wonder how much of this is actually my prejudices, please feel free to tell me.

I found the first third of the play to be rather unengaging as there were a lot of unconnected scenes, unexplained characters, painful soliloquys and little sense of drama. The scene changes were punctuated with a lot of fannying about on the gallery which quickly grew tiresome, robbed the play of a genuine sense of atmosphere and more than a couple of people around me were nodding off. Things finally sparked into action with the tribunal coming into session and the verbosity gave way a little to moments of acuity, as it became clear that Robespierre can only see violence as the way to change the world (“He who makes only half a revolution digs his own grave”) and Danton wants and needs compromise (“The revolution devours it own children”). As the shadow of death looms though, the angsty chat resumes and consequently the level of drama (and my interest) dropped.

Stephens aside, I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by almost all the ensemble players. Only Barnaby Kay’s passionate Desmoulins and Elliot Levey’s sibilant Robespierre managed to impress me. Elsewhere there were some sadly lifeless performances, one person just shouting their lines, a complete mishmash of conflicting styles and a morass of barely there supporting characters. Some of this could be excused as first preview issues, things like the over-acting extras talking far too loud in the background can be amended, but there’s also a more serious issue in the play itself, there are just far too many poorly defined characters that make brief appearances and then rarely reappear, so there’s scarce opportunity for them to make the characters work.

Most notable here is the penultimate scene featuring the wife of one of Danton’s compatriots going mad outside the prison walls, a nice enough scene but we’ve met her barely once before and little attention was paid to her so quite why she gets the grand emotional beat at the end of the play I do not know. That this is at the expense of actually featuring the more interesting characters like Robespierre, who despite being at the centre of the action from the outset, disappears never to be seen again two thirds into the play.

The set looks attractive: all hexagonal with a nicely laid wooden floor and rising to great heights at the multi-entranced back, with a gallery running round and shuttered windows which are periodically opened. However, it is not the most flexible of spaces and little work is done to differentiate the locations, I had no idea we were in a prison for the first scene there. And it doesn’t utilise the space of the Olivier that well either: it forces the action into a fairly small circle in the centre of the stage and so if your seats are not central, then there’s likely to be a fair bit of back-watching going on. It just feels suited to a smaller venue.

I think my attitude is typified by the finale which is quite an impressive coup de theatre, but rather than feeling any emotion at what was happening, I was just wondering ‘how did they do that’, as indeed were most of the people around me given the rise in whispering. That and marvelling at the varying pronunciations of Robespierre (should it rhyme with ‘spear’ or ‘spare’, I am none the wiser and I began to wonder if it was a running joke that I was missing, so diverse were the attempts at saying his name).So Danton’s Death was ultimately a disappointment for me, some of the issues could get better by opening night but I’m afraid I don’t think the play itself is worth even the £10 seats.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 22nd August

25 thoughts on “Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

  1. Hi Ian,
    Danton's Death was one of my final year productions at Drama School and never got my head round it then. Have booked for the NT production in a couple of weeks to see if it makes more sense 15 years on but by the sound of it doesn't sound promising.

  2. Robes-pee-air. This is my favourite era of history so I'm holding out hope for this one. The nice man gave me a fairly central seat, so that's something anyway. XD

  3. If this was written on 15th July, I just checked and that was the very first performance. Strange time to choose to review a play. Ill be going anyway, so hope it's a smoother ride.

  4. Glen: I wonder if a little previous knowledge of the play might help. I struggled a bit to remember who everyone was, especially as so many characters are in it for such a short time, and maybe it would have helped to know that Robespierre would disappear, that really disappointed me as Levey is excellent. Hope you enjoy it though.
    Weez: I would have said it that way too, but Stephens rhymed it with Shakespeare more often than not. Glad you got a central seat 😉
    Anonymous: I refer you to the first paragraph of the review where I clearly say it was the first preview, no 'checking' required. I review it when I see it, I often see things early in the run and as a paying customer, can;t see the problem in it especially as I always mention when it is a preview that I'm seeing. And whereas some things can improve (as indeed I say at the end), a large part of my issues were with the play itself so I don't imagine the review would have been that much different had I written it in October.

  5. I saw this production the same night and, unbelievably, agree with all (but one) of the points in this review. A little more time spent on character relationships and dynamics and a little less on the airs and long-winded, self-indulgent soliloquies and we might all have been better off.

    I do disagree on the point of the spaces, it was not always clear, especially in the first half, where they were meant to be (although I definitely knew it when they were in the prison), but they were well-defined between each other and it was clear when we had re-entered previous rooms.

    I was vaguely pleased that you said it should have perhaps been performed in a smaller theatre, it was one of the first things I came away thinking! (Even just the Lyttelton downstairs would have been an improvement.)

    Excellent review, in my opinion!

  6. Saw it same night. I can understand why there was no interval as there would have been no audience for act 2. Was most cheered when they finally got guillotined.

  7. Hi I saw this on the 17th and this review is spot on (and very well written). If anything you're a bit too understanding! This is the National after all and i thought the script (perhaps the translation) was dire. It was a relief when they finally shut Toby Stephens up.

  8. I saw it the same night and thought it was excellent, rivetting, dynamic and graceful at the same time. No one near me was dozing off. Toby Stephens' Danton reflected a man who had lived too close to death to fear it for himself but recognized his responsibility for the monster he had helped set in motion and tried to stop it. Modern times, anyone? He was not meant to be perfect. I cannot bear productions in which I am aware the characters are act-ing – refuse to sit through a bad performance of anything. I sat through this one. Disagree wholeheartedly with the superficial assessments which appear here.

  9. Yeah, have to agree with you. Some actors really out of their depths. Toby Stephens very inconsistant. Not good.

  10. My theatre partner and I came away with exactly the same reactions, especially about Toby Stephens, who had neither the human concern nor the physique of Danton (there are a few references to D's height as he had a very commanding presence). We were wondering who would have given a more convincing rendering and it is difficult to think of a suitable actor.

    I also agree that the translation was very weak and the language quite inappropriate.

    Considering the interest of the subject it is quite a wonder that this production managed to make it so dull.

  11. Went to see this last night. Not my thing. Even boredom died in this play.Pitty because this part of social history is really interesting…but the play isn't. Comments of people leaving at the end were generally unfavourable. Quite right about the interval…if it had of had one I would have left.

  12. I found the first half hour confusing but once I'd established the relationship between the characters found the production compelling and beautifully staged. It's the play of a young man, full of angry rhetoric, but still worth seeing.

  13. I had thought that I was the odd one out in finding the play confusing. I saw the earlier production in 1982 at the NT. I couldn't remember anything about it so it must have been dull then – still is. We need much more information and facts and less philosophising to make the evening comprehensible. That period of european history is incredibly important, interesting and dramatic. Sadly the extras are still grunting too much and Toby S wins no sympathy, but the shocking executions are (almost) worth the £10 ticket that I had.

  14. This review echoes my every thought about this production. A huge disappointment. I have read some wild claims about this play's greatness which on this showing are totally unfounded, or is it Brenton's version that is so totally unfocused? I could not believe in Toby Stephens' Danton for a second. Surely Gradage must have realised how the story telling is so opaque; why didn't he help the audience with some interesting staging..anything! Too much rant from beginning to end. I agree that the only question worth asking is: how did they do the head chopping?

  15. Saw this with a friend on 20th July and again I agree with everything you said – particularly the bit about Toby Stephens swaggering – it doesn't seem to matter what role he plays where he always kind of swaggers. If anyone knows how they did the final bit please share …

  16. I saw the National's last production of the play, many years ago, with Brian Cox in the lead. I found it rather boring. Maybe it's the play itself, and no production can compensate for that.

  17. Saw the show last night and while they now seem to have a consitent view on how to pronounce 'Rose pierre' would still agree with many of your points.
    Toby Stephens seems to have settled into the role but the main problem lies with the piece itself that frankly is dull.
    The script is shorter than previous productions but the series of long speaches does little to drive forward the drama and frankly by the time Madame Guillotine arrives I didnt really care for the fate of any of them.
    Audience comments when leaving very dissapointing so think this will be a niche audience.

  18. I saw the show on 17th and thought it was probably the worst thing I have seen at the National. Certainly people around me seemed in agreement that it was really not good. I felt I was being shouted at for two hours and that there were no subtleties at all. What I can't understand is the very good reviews it seems to be getting in the press. It makes you wonder whether the critics actually bother to go.

  19. Having read all of the above,I have decided not to fight tooth and nail for one of the few remaining tickets for this production next week when I will be near enough to London to make the trip financially viable.
    Many thanks all for a range of views that I have weighed-up and on balance, will save my theatre-going money for another production.

  20. I saw it last Friday and thought it was dull and tedious. Really admired Toby Stephens as Mr Rochester on TV, but found his performance totally unengaging. Some of the minor roles much better, especially Elliot Levey as Robespierre, and the actress who played Danton's wife. Even the guillotine scene though clever was neither shocking or moving. Try Youtube for the final scene of Poulenc's opera 'Dialogue of the Carmelites' for what a guillotine scene can be.

  21. Saw the play on 27th August. This was almost the worst play we have seen in the Olivier. The play was dull, the acting poor, the setting unexciting and the characters unvaried and uninteresting.

  22. Just saw the play on the 28th – thought it was quite brilliant and Elliot Levey as Robespierre was awesome.

  23. "I’m afraid I don’t think the play itself is worth even the £10 seats." – I suppose you mean the production rather than the play. If you're referring to the play: Have you actually read it? How many productions of the unadapted original have you seen to be able to comment on its quality?

  24. Dull, dull, dull. dull, dull. I was horrified when I realised half way through that there was going to be no end to my torture and I was actually going to have to sit all the way through this dreadful load of old rubbish. I gave up the will to live within the first 20 minutes. I couldn't have been happier when they were all guillotined at the end.

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