Review – Danton’s Life / Danton’s Death, National Theatre

Thursday 5 August 2010

For reasons even less interesting than the average WEW blog post the Whingers were forced to sell their preview tickets for Danton’s Death (by Georg Büchner in a new version by Howard Brenton directed by Michael Grandage at the National Theatre)

The show opened,  the critics gave it four stars and everyone else gave it two. Reading between the lines of the critics (and the actual lines of everyone else), Danton’s Death was dull, dull, dull…

…except for a quite audacious, unmissable, coup de theatre at the very end of the play [SPOILER ALERT].Well, we say “Spoiler Alert” but obviously the clue is pretty much there in the title for anyone with even the sketchiest knowledge of the French revolution.

Hmmm. Perhaps we could skip the first act and just arrive in the interval. But no, cunningly this is a 1h 50m show with no break.

So there was nothing for it but to take a deep breath and make the best of it. Tickets were purchased.

And so it was that the Whingers – equipped with some knitting to pass the time – sat in the front row waiting for the guillotine to come on. Waiting for Danton’s death. But first: 1h 49 minutes of Danton’s life..

Thank heavens for the knitting. Goodness but it was dull. Toby Stephens tried to make it interesting by making his Danton sound a bit like Eddie Izzard. Elliot Levey did his very best as a brittle and weaselly Robespierre to some effect. A young man sitting along from the Whingers had given up entirely and was slumped with his head in his hands resting on the edge of the stage no less.

There wasn’t even much to look at. Christopher Oram‘s gloomy set looked a bit like a cast-off from Earlham Street, albeit with a couple of folds in it to make it fit round the Olivier stage but it did suggest the adage that although you can take the boy out of the Donmar… Of course, that’s not entirely true as Phil thought it typically monumental and effective with its Oramesque leitmotif of evocative simplicity, promising a taste of his time to come as First Lady designer-in-chief when Sir Michael is finally handed the National’s reigns. Let’s hope he’s kept those Olivier stage measurements and holds on to Paule Constable to atmospherically light his work and Adam Cork is on hand provide chillingly effective understated sound. Yes, one had time to think idly of a great many things during the first 1h 49m. Andrew occupied much of it counting the buttons on the costumes.

And then finally it happened. Second Spoiler Alert (don’t say we didn’t warn you). The guillotine appeared and within no time at all not one, not two, not three but FOUR people had their heads chopped off in rapid succession. There, in front of our faces. Phil’s knitting needles were clattering nineteen to the dozen with excitement, dropping a couple of stitches of his Phrygian Cap in the process. It was quite astonishing. Every time someone lost their head the Whingers vowed to watch even more closely next time to see how it was done but to no avail. Brilliant. Breathtaking. Well worth the £10 and almost worth the first 1h 49m. Wisely, that is where the play ended and anyone who had seen the Whingers emerging from the auditorium must have concluded that Danton’s Death was quite the most exciting play ever to have been staged at the National.


The Whingers scoured the programme in vain to find out who was responsible for the guillotine but without success. An email to the press office elicited the following response: “Take a bow, Michael Garrett and Michelle McLucas of the NT props department who designed and built the guillotine – they spent hours developing a prototype before perfecting the final design.  But the skill of the actors involved is apparently as important to the success of the illusion as the actual design – so full credit to Toby Stephens, Barnaby Kay, Max Bennett and Gwilym Lee too!”

Rating – Danton’s life

Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary

Rating – Danton’s death

Rating score 5-5 our cups overfloweth

21 Responses to “Review – Danton’s Life / Danton’s Death, National Theatre”

  1. jmc Says:

    Did neither of the Whingers’ see Peter Gill’s early 80s NT Olivier production of the play? That was “a version by Howard Brenton” but a rather finer version than this has turned out to be. I cannot understand why Brenton has hacked at the play in the way he has, especially considering his exceptionally fine earlier edition, which was far more faithful to Buchner – albeit longer – and a much more effective piece of theatre.

    Brian Cox lost his head on that occasion, and a much sadder end it was.

  2. Ed The Taxi Says:

    Ah, the secret of the guillotine eh? If the Whingers had ventured north to Knebworth, they would have witnessed the King of the guillotine, Alice Cooper, performing the same stunt, as he has done for the past 30 years. It’s quite simple when it’s explained to you, you see, what happens is……….

  3. David Says:

    From where I was sitting, in the circle, it was slightly easier to tell how it was done – but still very effective. I’d say it was as much the skill of the executioners as that of the four executed.

  4. PKelly Says:

    Thank GOD!!!! I was getting so sick of seeing reviewers give this play four stars. I’d concluded some of them must have done a ‘Matthew Wright’ and reviewed it without actually going to see it! On the night I went, the gentleman next to me actually fell asleep, and the lady in front of me gave them a slow hand clap at the curtain call.

  5. Glen Says:

    I agree with David – a bit more easy to spoe the mechanics from the Circle but still impressive but judging by the nodding, fidgiting and even snoaring think they need a really loud fanfare built in before the scene to wake the majority of the audience up!

  6. Penny Says:

    The guillotine bit was the only decent bit in the entire thing, but if I want to see a trick I don’t want 1 hr 49 minutes of tedium. The actors definitely tried their best, but they couldn’t save this stinker.

    The little old lady next to me fell asleep and if the thing had been any longer, so would I! Bored stiff I did do a sweep of the stalls about 45 minutes in and a fair few people were ‘resting their eyes’. And this was a matinee. There were even more about 20 minutes later.

    If the play had had an interval I wouldn’t have bothered going back in for the second half. Guillotine or no. The dancers outside the NT were the best thing I saw that day.

  7. Baldassaro Says:

    I wasn’t as bored as others seem to have been, but it did take an awfully long time to work out who was supposed to be in Robespierre’s gang and who in Danton’s. I thought Toby Stephens was channelling the vile Christopher Hitchens thoughout, rather than Eddie Izzard. Now there’s someone I’d pay to see being beheaded…

  8. Paul Chandler Says:

    It wasn’t great was it, your review was spot on. I guess the critics take the line that ‘it’s old and French and about concepts like liberty and freedom, so 4* it is.

  9. sandown Says:

    The play was written in German, not French. “Liberty and freedom” are two words for the same thing, one derived from Latin and one from Anglo-Saxon. Not that the French Revolution did much to contribute to either concept, apart from propaganda.

    The subsidised theatre in this country is largely run by, and for, ageing middle-class leftists, so this play is a chance for them all to revisit their revolutionary youth.

    No mainstream critic would dare to give a bad review to this type of material, nor to the multi-cultural drivel that the National Theatre turns out incessantly at the taxpayers’ expense.

  10. Paul Chandler Says:

    Thanks for setting me straight on the original language sandown, I should have used ‘foreign’ as a catch-all. I was thinking liberty and freedom were the same thing as I typed but I was on the hop on a ferry in Holyhead at the time and couldn’t think of another theme.

    One thing I would say is that I wish I had seen the earlier version rather than this cut down one.

  11. David Says:

    Despite smugly believing that I had worked out the guillotine effect, I’ve been told I was wrong. Although I don’t understand the (admittedly secondhand) explanation at all and so am now officially mystified again!

  12. Malaita Says:

    Would someone PLEASE tell me how the guillotine effect was achieved!

  13. Rev Stan Says:

    Guillotine definitely won it for me. Awards for Michael Garrett and Michelle McLucas please. And possibly Toby Stephen’s hair.

  14. Mike P Says:

    You obviously saw a different play with the same title to the one I saw. Not flawless, I will admit, but it had me enthralled. Great performances by the key characters, if some of the minor characters were less rounded and a bit one dimensional. It seems that most of the critics above are politically motivated in their criticism (disdain for subsidised theatre, xenophobia, dislike for anything left of right of centre). Danton’s Death is hardly pro-revolutionary polemic, in fact just the opposite, but I suppose that anything that might make you think is going to be seen as “pro-left, subsidised theatre”. Keep the proles amused with circuses, but nowadays forget the bread.

    • Sylvia Woodhurst Says:

      Agree completely with Mike P–yes I was at the same performance–very thoughtful play–dramatic presentation of increasing radicalism in revolutions, but I did study French History. Hilary Mantel has a great novel for those who want a more accessible approach to the French Revolution. The acting and direction were the reasons for 4 stars.

  15. Boz Says:

    Am amazed you got upwards of 650 words out of this. I went with a friend last night and afterwards we just didn’t have anything to say about it. “Meh”.

    The ending was rather ruined by us spending the final minutes thinking “ooooh how did they do that?!” and then it was over. And no one clapped. The cast took to the stage and people started half-hearted applause. It was painful. And the cast knew it.

  16. Clive Says:

    All shouty clap-trap. Hardly any emotional value, no character development, no colour range in the voices, their lines delivered like they wanted to go home as quickly as possible. It felt like skim reading a history textbook full of speeches of the terror – in UPPER-CASE TEXT the night before an exam. An audio-book would have been read at a quarter of the speed, and had we been given an interval I would have been able to disappear and not had to have had to suffer that performance.

  17. ajk Says:

    Well I’ve only gone and been to the theatre again. But rare as these occasions are so who knows what normally goes on there but I can’t think that I should be walking away from the National thinking only of David Nixon.

    I hadn’t seen previous versions of this so had no pre-conceptions and I thought what it did it did well. Better than well. I mean as in these are the verities – death, power, historical processes – so anyone who deals with them in a halfway competent manner deserves praise and this was way more than a halfway decent effort. (Side note on the audience – my what a bourgeois lot, goodness knows what the survival rate would have been for us 200 years ago.)

    That there was no context or history of association between the protagonists, which has infuriated some, I thought actually was a strength of the production. Dropping us into the second act of the revolution in the first act of the play meant we faced the ishoos immediately. Stripped of context the existential dilemmas (stifle yawn, no really) and conflicts of power that propel this play forwards could take centre stage; certainly Brenton has preserved, I must believe, the immediacy and passion of Buchner’s after all pretty near contemporaneous response to these events.

    This is not to say the production was without its idiosyncrasies. Toby Stephens was a bit slight for the supposed thug of the revolution – I wondered how difficult it must have been to cast the womenfolk so that they didn’t tower over him – plus yes he was a bit shouty plus I wouldn’t have liked to have been sitting in the front row without an umbrella but he never became (lapsed into?) “Toby Stephens” for which we should be thankful. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre seemed a bit too camp and slight but he is certainly watchable; he was clearly enjoying the role and why not. And apart from a reading of his pamphlet piece you wouldn’t have known who Camille was nor why he was there –only one mention of his Lanterne nickname and none of how or why he acquired it; and finally yes it was tricky working out who was who to start with but once all that was done and the focus was on not how or why but what Danton was declaiming, it was good theatre.

    After all it is all about Danton, and how his dilemma informs so many aspects of the revolution and this is where the play hummed along. Whether with his allies or at court (particularly unsettling), all the physical ticks melted away and the words shone or rather steamrolled their way through. I loved also the icily warped logic of Robespierre egged on by Alec Newman’s solid Saint-Just. And Danton as conflicted hero and villain, both welcoming and fearing his own death while regretting and questioning the deaths of others for which he is responsible is believable and Stephens carries this through well. In all, barring the wholly unnecessary guillotine end, a Good Play. And yes by all means go and read Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.

  18. […] Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been tempted. I’ve seen some right old tat in my time (take a bow The Low Road, stand up Danton’s Death). […]

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