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
Rating – Danton’s death