Review – The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse

Thursday 29 July 2010

Like The Railway Children, which is currently flaunting its loco at Waterloo station, Heinrich von Kleist‘s The Prince of Homburg comes with its own Unique Selling Point having had conferred upon it the somewhat loco accolade: “Hitler’s favourite play”.

Yes, the Whingers were obviously never quite going to be able to overlook such an epithet and as soon as the Donmar announcement was made the Whingers were straight on the phone for tickets.

After all, it’s only a few months since they saw Stalin’s favourite play and their theatre-going activities have been given a new impetus by the desire to tick off the favourite plays of all of the 20th Century’s top dictators (and their wives). The Whingers are given to understand that Elena Ceauşescu* adored The Prisoner of Second Avenue (and was the only person on the planet to find it the slightest bit amusing) so it was worth sitting through that after all. Now we are willing someone – anyone –  to revive Idi Amin’s favourite musical, No, No Nanette. So, anyway, yes, Heiled by Hitler, although in his defence of his tastes he didn’t live long enough to see The Chalk Garden, did he? But the Whingers were worried, suppose they really loved it too? Where would that place their taste as theatregoers? Suppose it was right up at the top of their Bagnold Barometer? Very disconcerting.

At first glance it seemed that their concerns were way off the mark. Events unfolded in a rather arid fashion. It was like being force-fed cream crackers without butter, suggesting that Hitler had either no sense of humour or a taste for the Jacob’s.

A young officer, the titular Prussian Prince (Charlie Cox) disobeys a battle order from the Elector (Ian McDiarmid) in a long campaign against the Swedes. He wasn’t really concentrating when the commands were being dished out, perhaps because he was distracted by the beauty of Princess Natalia (Sonya Cassidy) or perhaps because he was disconcerted by the broad comedy of the scene that he found himself playing in and the way it stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of the play.

Anyway, suffice to say, he ignores the commands and despite the fact that the army was victorious, he is arrested court-martialed and handed a death warrant. No plea of “I was only obeying orders” admissible here.

Jonathan Munby‘s direction in the first half hour is rather flat and Dennis Kelly‘s new version (“NOW WITH NEW IMPROVED ENDING!”) of the Führer’s fave play suffers from a lack of “show don’t tell” – battlefield tactics are described at some length but we don’t see a single battle! No horses! Nothing! Just the Prince and his cohorts watching from a hill.

Thankfully towards the end of the first act the dilemmas created gradually became more engaging and the core theme emerged: what is more important – winning at all costs or obedience to one’s superior?

The Prince moves swiftly from Pollyanna-ish optimism about his imprisonment to a fear of his impending doom when he’s shown the grave that’s been dug for him and becomes a grovelling wreck. The events of the tighter second act fly past as Princess Natalia (with whom he has fallen in love) and the troops defend his actions. The Prince’s fate shifts.

Is the Elector at all culpable? In the opening scene he plays a trick on the sleep-walking Prince leading to his distraction during the military briefing (The Whingers were equally distracted during that scene). McDiarmid (who was sometimes inaudible in Act 1) starts playing around with his role and provides a sprinkling of laughs, less Mein Kampf, more McDiarmid mining camp.

Most impressively he performs one of the most satisfying on-stage letter writing scenes we’ve witnessed. Scratchy ink pen on substantial stationery, sturdy blotting work and full sealing-wax treatment. Very impressive. Other areas of stagecraft were a bit sloppier though: the cast need to keep a tighter reign on their weapons as there’s an awful lot of distracting sword-clankery going on.

Kelly’s version has some neat lines “We go from six feet high to six feet under” and makes the story and debates very clear and eventually quite gripping. Did ev’ry hotsy-totsy Nazi stand and cheer when the German Ethel Merman was in the house? Not hard to guess which side of the argument Adolph saluted.


* Rather fabulously, Elena Ceauşescu’s last words are alleged to have been: “Can it be that the firing squad is still in use in Romania?” History really is the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it?


3 Responses to “Review – The Prince of Homburg, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    “Not hard to guess which side of the argument Adolph saluted” – well, actually, it is. A lot harder, since Kleist’s ending of reprieve and loyal rallying-together was replaced by Kelly with execution and mutiny – what could Hitler have seen in that?

  2. Indeed. Possibly Hitler made what I think used to be called a “negotiated reading” of the play. Incidentally, if you Google “Hitler’s favourite play” The Merchant Of Venice comes up quite a lot. Perhaps we could ask Kelly to rewrite the ending of that. Although that was already done for Theatre Of Blood, of course.

  3. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Well, the original ending is easily interpreted as let’s-all-get-behind-the-fatherland: Kleist when he wrote it was wrestling with issues of personal freedom versus the obligations of citizenship, but also feeling an upswell of Prussian patriotism in the face of Napoleon’s march across Europe. But Kleist’s ending is also one that does show a relatively enlightened monarch who is eventually swayed by the arguments for mercy. Kelly’s “version” does seem to me rather to interpret white as meaning black.

    Mind you, every year the American Supreme Court meets and decides that when the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, it means Congress may make some laws abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. Maybe Kelly has a background in jurisprudence.

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