Fortunately for Howard Brenton, he's got a great new play of his own showing in London at the moment (Anne Boleyn, which I reviewed last night) to take away from a stinker just up the river, his new version of Büchner's Danton's Death. Apparently Brenton has significantly cut down the original but despite running at well under 2 hours without interval (interval = opportunity for escape) this is a long trudge. I'm unfamiliar with the play itself but I suspect the reasons I disliked it are due to the original more than the translation. The programme describes how Büchner made himself an expert on the French Revolution, to the extent of using many speeches by leading figures almost verbatim in the play, and this rang warning bells. Indeed, much of the play simply consists of speechifying from Danton, Robespierre and Saint-Just, especially in the first half-hour, so there's little chance of caring about any of the characters. Danton and Robespierre clash when the former thinks their actions have gone too far, and the latter deals with him the way he deals with everyone - a quick trip to the guillotine. But despite attempts to differentiate the two in personality as well as ideals, this remains a couple of hours of rhetoric, not particularly theatrical at all (despite being the title character's nemesis, Robespierre disappears about halfway through, with no explanation.)
Director Michael Grandage is at fault as well - the Donmar boss makes his National Theatre debut here, and he's done so much work I've loved, so it's a shame that the previous play of his this most reminded me of was last year's single disaster of the Wyndhams season, Madame de Sade. In both cases it would seem Grandage is not the man to put in charge of plays largely consisting of monologues. Danton's Death is visually uninteresting, performed in a constant fug of dry ice, and faced with a large stage designer Christopher Oram has once again indulged his fondness for high, oppressive walls and windows, but it seems a bad fit for this venue - I don't remember ever seeing the Olivier stage look so small. At least Toby Stephens is better cast as the somewhat anti-heroic Danton than he was in The Real Thing, and his typical swagger is more suited to this frequenter of brothels who's arrogant enough to think he can beat the guillotine (clearly nobody told him what the play was called.) Elliot Levey looks and acts exactly like my mental image of Robespierre (which is unflattering news for Levey but handy for the production) and the final scene has a flawless stage illusion that's the one moment things perk up, but other than that this is just dreary - if at all possible, I always drink a coffee shortly before going to the theatre and this is why, without it I think the chances of me nodding off would have been pretty high.
Danton's Death by Georg Büchner in a version by Howard Brenton is in repertory until the 14th of October at the National Theatre's Olivier.