Review: Schiller’s Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

“The stuff of seduction is also the stuff of politics: lies and promises”

Schiller’s Luise Miller is Michael Grandage’s penultimate outing as director at the Donmar Warehouse before Josie Rourke takes on the reins of Artistic Director. A bustling German 18th Century tale of romance, class struggles, tragedy and court politics, the play, Kabale und Liebe (previous translations have been called Intrigue and Love, and Love and Politics) has been given a new treatment here by Mike Poulton, who if Wikipedia is anything to go by (bearing in mind this is my first experience with the play), has reworked quite a bit of the latter part of the play, bringing to mind Dennis Kelly’s liberal approach to The Prince of Homburg at this same venue.

Noble-born Ferdinand, son of the one of the most powerful statesmen in the country, is in love with Luise Miller, the middle-class daughter of a middle-class musician and willing to sacrifice all for love. But the political scheming and power games that govern the world they live in means that their destiny is out of their hands, no matter how honourable their intentions, they are at the mercy of those more powerful who will stoop to nothing to ensure they survive.

As the ‘normal’ middle class family, the Millers live a life of quiet aspiration: Paul Higgins’ passionate protective father, a violinist in the Prince’s court and a under-used Finty Williams as the mother circle round their daughter Luise, played with a quiet fervour by Felicity Jones, batting off unwitting suitors and acknowledging her strong will to do as she chooses. Indeed her mother is secretly pleased about the match (anyone want to bet a fiver the Middletons are mentioned in at least one review!) and though her father is contemptuous of the corrupt noble classes, he is not above taking their money.

There’s much more fun to be had at court though: Ben Daniels’ Machiavellian Chancellor and John Light’s wickedly calculating Wrum making an excellent scheming duo, each out to secure their own positions at the expense of anyone, especially those from a lower social class: Light is particularly poisonously persuasive here, having dragged his way up the social ladder himself but Daniels’ cold anger and powerful presence was a pleasure to watch. David Dawson’s dandyish court gossip was good fun and Alex Kingston’s Lady Milford, both manipulator and manipulated as a woman all too aware of the precariousness of her own position has two incendiary scenes that made me wish this was a bigger character.

And perhaps it speaks of my preferences more, but I enjoyed the first half with its focus on these machinations at court much more than the second: the tonal shift between the two is a little too abrupt and needs work to create the building sense of tragedy that the play requires. If a finger is going to be pointed, Max Bennett needs to take more care to tone down Ferdinand’s puppyish behaviour which garnered many a laugh right up until the point when one realised what he was actually going to do. But by the same token, it would have been nice to see Felicity Jones’ Luise to show some element of personality, her creamy virtue became really rather cloying.

Grandage sticks to a tried and tested production template: Peter McKintosh creating a set of dark brick and shuttered windows, gloomily lit by Paule Constable and with a hauntingly atmospheric soundscape from Adam Cork. Complete with his recognisably pacey direction using all the access points downstairs, there’s a certain air of familiarity here of Grandage sticking to the tried and tested formula that has worked so well for him. Perhaps it’s heightened by the knowledge that his tenure is coming to an end, I couldn’t help but wish for something a little different, a little more inspired.

Luise Miller was mostly rather enjoyable, especially when it reminded of Dangerous Liaisons; if not yet quite hitting the tragic depths it is aiming for in its second half more closely aligned to Romeo and Juliet, it will most likely get there, aided by some very good performances throughout the cast. As the beginning of a swansong, it marks another extremely accomplished notch on the post for Grandage whose consistently reliable presence will be no mean feat to equal.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval) though still in preview so subject to change
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 30th July

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