The first two minutes set the tone. A bare stage, suddenly inhabited by a gang of French revolutionaries, who happily brought their own furniture with them, who then began debating the course the revolution should take. In Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom, there's a bit where the action stops, and all the characters discuss the merits of collective farming vs private ownership. It led some wags to coin the phrase Homage to Catatonia. The first two minutes was like that and I knew I wouldn't enjoy it. Danton made some political points, and his mates started cheering and waving their fists like extras in a bad play. Oh. That's not a good sign, is it?
What's wrong with this play? It's so wordy, for a start. It's of its time, I suppose, but you can't put on a production of a play like this without acknowledging the wordiness of the text. Some brecthianism would have been a relief. For example, we need to feel the strangeness of the didacticism, to have that isolated from the (possibly moving) personal romance. I understand Howard Brenton signficantly cut the length of the play in preparing his "version". I hate to think what he cut out. Either it was even more of the political and moral discussion (god help us), or maybe it was some action that would have embodied the debates. In what was left, there was very little dramatisation of the debate. We rely on what the characters tell us, not what they do.
There's a personal story too. This is about the contrast between the sensuous, venal Danton, and the buttoned-up, severe Robespierre. This is embodied a little in the characterisations, but again we mainly know about their respective characters because they and others tell us about them. Elliott Levey's portrayal of Robespierre has gained some praise for its psychological insight, but actually I found it tricksy, based in the legs, not the head.
And the last four minutes. Danton, not to spoil this any more than a basic knowledge of history or a basic reading of the name of the play would reveal, dies. He's guillotined. The illusion of the guillotine is very impressive. How did they do that? How? But if your abiding memory of a play is a special effect, what does that tell you? What?
What do the critics say? According to the National Theatre's website, they've been effusive.
Once again, I turn to Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph. He gave it four stars, and his review is worth reading for the background it gives to the play's writing. But here's the final paragraph of his review:
Young and radical though he was, Buchner had clearly realised that the road to hell is often paved with idealistic intentions.I'm spotting a theme here. Spencer likes to end his reviews with a vacuous cliché.
Michael Billington suggests that Brenton's version has cut out a lot of the human. He summarises the production as "perfectly respectable" (three stars), but he's not really enthusiastic. The comments on his review gradually get worse.
In the Independent, Paul Taylor gives 4 stars, and calls it "absorbing", while Kate Bassett, in the Independent on Sunday, rightly describes it as "unengaging".
So, it's true, most critics liked it. What's wrong with them? These are people who see loads of plays, and know what it's like to be engaged and moved by an unfolding drama. This was nothing like that. The performance lasted just under two hours, with no interval. If there had been an interval, I'd have left during it, and I never do that.
It's the only really bad production I've seen at the National - even debatable ones like Women Beware Women had more basic life and interest in them than this - so I suppose everyone's allowed to get it wrong now and again. I do feel let down by the critics, though,