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Danton's Death
Elliot Levey as Robespierre and Toby Stephens
as Georges Danton. Picture Johan Persson

At the heart of the revolution

Howard Brenton’s whittled-down version of a ground-breaking Romantic German drama plunges us directly into key moments in the French Revolution. Corinna Lotz reviews Danton’s Death at the National Theatre.

George Danton and Maximilien Robespierre were central figures in the tumultuous five years that saw the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchy of Louis XV1 and the creation of the first French Republic.

It’s the spring of 1794 and the revolution is at a crucial point. Louis XV1 and his wife Marie Antoinette have been guillotined and the anti-Republicans in the Vendee put down.

The revolution seemed safe. And yet a group of revolutionaries, the Cordeliers, led by the ultra-left Jacques Hebert were arrested and put to death on March 24. Danton (a dynamic Toby Stephens) and his supporters question why the executions are still continuing.

They oppose “Saint-Just and Saint Robespierre”, as the eloquent journalist Camille Desmoulins satirises those who have elevated “virtue” into the highest dogma and rationale for continuing the Terror even though the ancien regime is finished.

Through Danton and Desmoulins (effectively played by Barnaby Kay) and the female protagonists, the emotions of the time speak to us through complex, perplexed, humorous, sarcastic and desperate human beings. “Froth on the crest of a wave”, to quote Georg Büchner, the author of the original.

The central conflict is a psychological rather than political clash. Robespierre, known as “the Incorruptible” – or “Tyrant” – to his enemies is the man who has now turned from co-revolutionary into Danton’s nemesis. Danton is a thorough-going sensualist whereas Robespierre (a fastidious Elliot Levey) seeks to drive on the terror of the guillotine against the perceived enemies of the revolution, holding that “the strength of the Republic is virtue”.

In his chilling speech to the Jacobin Club, we get a glimpse of Robespierre’s iron logic as well as his sure-fire populist touch as he tips over into a rationale for destroying his co-revolutionaries.

Robespierre’s contempt for those he calls libertines, and the “new revolutionary aristocracy”, is set against Danton’s passion for things of the flesh. But the “Incorruptible” is also a haunted man, as he muses on the nature of dreams and insubstantial thoughts: “Oh, what the mind does, who can blame us? The mind goes through more actions in one hour than the lumbering body does in a year.” It calls to mind the hallucinations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet.

Robespierre needs others to egg him on against his former comrades. It is his ally, Saint-Just, who fulfils this task, played with subtlety and conviction by Alec Newman. Comparing social revolution to changes in nature, he gives an extraordinary account of human history: “The physical world would take centuries to do what we have done, punctuated by generations. We took four years. Is it so surprising that at every turn of the tide the great sea of the revolution washes up its corpses?”

The convulsions sweeping through the hearts of these men and their lovers and wives in response to events, not formal dramatic structure or rhyming verses, drive on this production. You feel the undertow of reaction, as they struggle against the coming Thermidor – the forces of consolidation – which established the dictatorship of the new bourgeois ruling classes.

Danton senses he is doomed and yet refuses to believe it. He even seeks death, arguing he would rather be guillotined than send others to their death, and yet he arrogantly hopes he can defy fate, that his heroic role in the revolution will save him: “My voice was the hurricane that drowned the lackeys of the despots under waves of bayonets”, he tells his accusers at the Revolutionary Tribunal. But he underestimates the shocking cynicism of his enemies who set up a kangaroo court to condemn him.

Today, the trial scene resonates with a premonition of future counter-revolutions and frame-ups, not least the notorious Moscow Trials of the Stalinist Terror of 1937, which Trotsky called the Soviet Thermidor.

Danton's Death
Eleanor Matsuura as Marion and Toby Stephens
as Georges Danton. Picture Johan Persson

Brenton’s version is true to the spirit to Büchner’s epic original, written in 1835 in five short weeks as the 21-year-old medical student was on the run. He had fled to his father’s house to escape the wrath of the semi-feudal Grand Duke of Hessen Darmstadt’s police for his role in “treasonable activities”.

The young Rhinelander’s commitment to political and social change was indeed a highly dangerous enterprise. He was no armchair commentator and he conveys a thrilling – and chilling – sense of immediacy through an astonishingly direct and yet poetic language.

As Brenton notes: “Perhaps Büchner’s visceral sense of the revolutionary leaders’ predicament comes from his own: those days of heightened awareness under surveillance and in fear of arrest in his father’s house.”

Büchner’s new form of prose drama took up the theme of human beings making history as the shock waves of 1789 and its Napoleonic aftermath worked their way through Europe. He had less than two years to live when he wrote Danton’s Death, but in making the revolution his own, he has a feeling for humanity that is both sombre and exhilarating.

This version has removed the sans-culotte (working class radical) elements of the  original, but it lends more weight to the feminine element – Danton’s wife Julie (Kirsty Bushell), his grisette-lover (Eleanor Matsuura) and Desmoulins’ wife Lucile (Rebecca O’Mara).

The most wrenching lines – conjuring up Roman poets like Horace and Catullus – are reserved for Danton himself. Languishing in the Conciergerie jail as Madame Guillotine awaits, he says to himself: “Dear body, I’ll hold my nose and pretend you are a woman, warm, sweaty from dancing, and whisper to you. We had some times, body, you and I.” 

We know the end, but it is a shocking wrench nonetheless.

17 August 2010

Danton’s Death, directed by Michael Grandage, is at the National Theatre until 14 October. £10 tickets still available.

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