Gadi Roll’s new production of Schiller’s early masterpiece, Don Carlos, is starkly and refreshingly uncompromising. Like David Icke’s 2016-17 Mary Stuart at the Almeida, it is focused on character rather than action, allowing Schiller’s powerful text to speak for itself. Don Carlos has much to say about the abuse of power, as we watch Philip II driven to increasingly brutal authoritarianism to safeguard his vast Catholic empire against growing dissent. It is a play that has much to say to us now, but Roll leaves the parallels unforced, never resorting to the tiresome gimmicks of some recent historic plays.
In constructing a tragedy which asks if tyranny can be overcome by an understanding of personal virtue, Schiller rewrites history. His chief source was a French fiction, the Abbé de Saint-Réal’s Dom Carlos, Nouvelle historique (1672). Schiller’s Don Carlos, heir to the vast Spanish empire, is not, therefore, the unstable sadist of history, but a likeable young man, whose volatility and emotional honesty are part of his superior sensitivity. Schiller ages his father, Philip II, who then appears as a monarch edging towards Lear-like madness. At the heart of the play is the catastrophic fall-out from Philip’s second marriage. Schiller follows Saint-Réal’s romantic plot in which a dynastic marriage had been arranged between Don Carlos and Elizabeth of Valois. The couple had fallen instantly in love when she was brought as his bride, but Philip, a widower, was also enchanted by Elizabeth’s beauty, and married her himself. When the play opens, some years have passed, but Don Carlos remains in agonies, longing to speak to the woman whom he adores but is forced to address as his mother.
Carlos has the consolation, however, of being reunited with his one true friend, Roderigo, the Marquis of Posa, the real hero of the play. Posa is an idealistic freedom fighter, who inspires Don Carlos to listen to the plight of the protestants in Flanders, the victims of Philip’s merciless suppression. Carlos is determined to defend them, begging his father that he be allowed to lead the Spanish troops while secretly plotting their liberation.
There follows much intricate plotting as the intense inner circle of Philip’s court question each other’s moves, ready to suspect treason at the slightest hint. Princess Eboli, for example, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, tries to seduce Carlos, and when he resists, turns vengeful. Philip seems blind to the machinations of his closest advisors. Even the ever-virtuous Posa finds himself forced to conceal certain truths from Carlos to protect him.
In presenting the atmosphere of suspicion which dominates the court, Rosanna Vize’s stark set is a tour-de-force. The unadorned black walls and menacing emptiness are highly suggestive of its oppressive atmosphere; there is also something of the gloom of Spanish counter-reformation churches. The Queen and her ladies-in-waiting sit far apart from one another on rigid chairs. There is no domestic comfort anywhere.
Roll makes effective use of stylized movements. Characters walk fiercely in parallel lines as if forever obeying commands. Jonathan Samuel’s lighting design is powerfully effective. Moveable spotlights are wheeled briskly into place as characters are observed or interrogated, and there is a varied but ever-threatening soundscape (again the work of Gadi Roll).
Kelly Gough is magnificent as Elizabeth of Valois, the angry but dutiful queen. Her Irish accent helps to remind us that Elizabeth is not from here, but a French woman being used as a pawn in international politics. Samuel Valentine makes Don Carlos himself an appealing character, although it is hard to imagine how his mercurial nature would endear him to the far more mature Elizabeth – one of the problems of staging this play.
But the standout performances are Darrell D’Silva as Philip and Tom Burke as the Marquis of Posa. At first, Philip’s is merely a physically imposing presence, and it is Posa who fascinates with his vision, admittedly an anachronistic one, of political liberty. We can see immediately why Don Carlos would be prepared to follow Posa anywhere. And yet this is also the play’s chief flaw. Nowhere in Shakespeare is there a mature male character who is as morally flawless as Posa, ready to risk his life for his vision of liberty, never tempted by power and prepared to renounce romantic love for the higher good. The most electrifying scene is therefore the one in which Schiller introduces subtle ambiguity. Posa, for the good of Don Carlos and the Netherlandish cause, has to persuade Philip of a new moral vision, a totally different universe in which people are free to be themselves. We watch fascinated as the King dares himself to embrace his own humanity. But in engineering this, Posa himself must act a lie. Our sympathies begin to lean towards Philip who has exposed a side of himself we have never seen. Schiller nudges us here by bringing forward the defeat of the Spanish Armada, suggesting Philip’s decline is inevitable. But he redeems Posa from possible accusations of duplicity by showing him nobly dying towards the end of the play. In a pleasing piece of casting, Tom Burke returns in the final scenes, transformed from Posa into a particularly menacing Grand Inquisitor. Those of us who first came across the Don Carlos story in Verdi’s operatic version may feel a bit cheated that there’s no auto-da-fé at the end, but the revelation that the real power behind the throne is the Society of Jesus still delivers a satisfying shock.
Playing in preview at over three and a half hours, this is a production that certainly challenges its audience. But its integrity and clear, taut action makes it a fascinating evening.
Don Carlos, translated by Robert David MacDonald and directed by Gadi Roll, is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston from 6 November to 17 November 2018.