Don Carlos - Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Don Carlos is a bit of a Marmite production. There are those that love it and what Tom Burke is trying to create with his new theatre company, and then there are those who hate it “bombastic and punishingly dull,” The Times.

Having heard Tom Burke promise a new way of looking at theatre, to watch something stripped back to the text and not reliant on fancy costume or theatre sets, I was excited to watch Don Carlos. I was especially pleased that the MacDonald translation had been chosen, as I have picked up various versions of Schiller’s work and find the MacDonald translations beautifully written.

I was travelling 250 miles to watch this play, so I decided I would watch its progression over the course of a week. (Only three evenings, but that gave me sufficient material to see what worked and what didn’t – not that I’m a professional critic – I’m just a theatre lover.)

Don Carlos is originally a five act play by Friedrich Schiller and set in 16th Century Spain around the time of the insidious Spanish Inquisition. The play is loosely based on historical events under the reign of King Phillip II of Spain. The heir to the throne, Don Carlos, was once betrothed to his childhood friend Elizabeth of Valois and he is still deeply in love with her, however, following her political marriage to Phillip she has become his stepmother!

During Phillip’s rein, the Inquisition persecuted all suspected heretics. Rebellions were suppressed, especially in the Low Countries, and the menacing presence of the Catholic Church was felt all around. In Schiller’s version of events, Don Carlos feels imprisoned between his unrequited love for his stepmother and his hatred for his father, so to help bring him out of his melancholy, he entrusts his closest friend, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, with his secret about his love for Elizabeth. Rodrigo has just returned from Flanders, and whilst Carlos wants him to set up a meeting with his mother so he can proclaim his love for her, Rodrigo sees this as an opportunity to conjure up a rebellion against Phillip’s tyrannical regime.

The set is minimalist. Exposed black brick walls, a black stage, black furniture and spotlights set up either end of the stage like chess pieces ready to commence in battle. In this sinister dark chamber, black clad courtiers wearing dark shades feel like the arrival of the mafia. The dark, shadowy recesses are imposing and create an air of foreboding from the start. The only splash of colour in the whole play is the regal red carpet – which had its own staring role as it seemed to be another living/breathing entity when it kept rucking up under the actors feet – and the red lining of the King and Queen’s coats. (I was a little sad that this theme was not continued throughout all the regal apparel – a red button or stitching on the jackets or shirts would have tied it all together.)

Don Carlos could be considered a superficial play about one man, so caught up with his own problems, that he lacks the foresight to see the world around him. But this isn’t just a family tragedy panning out. Schiller has looked at history and man’s struggle against the oppression of religion and the need for tolerance and humanity. When you consider the current troubles in Syria and across the globe, the message is still one that is relevant today.

“You want your garden to flower eternally! But the seed you sow is death”. Marquis of Posa

Samuel Valentine plays the titular role, but it is Tom Burke as Roderigo, Marquis of Posa who stands out. Posa is the prominent character, the man who has a disregard for the court, a close bond with the Prince, the friendship and loyalty of the Queen, and following Burke’s brilliantly delivered speech in a critical scene in the play, he obtains the ear of the King to become his right-hand man.

Darrell D’Silva gives a strong performance and a gravitas to King Phillip. We recoil as he refuses to reconcile with his son who has begged on hands and knees for his father to consider the bigger picture, to send him to Flanders to establish peace in the land. Phillip's desire for destruction is clear as he sends the Duke of Alba, a bloodthirsty general, to Flanders instead and Posa’s plan for a brighter future is threatened. But it is the final scene, when Tom Burke arrives back on stage as the blind and aged Cardinal Grand Inquisitor, that we witness the power of the church, and the King as a broken pawn in this game of political chess. 

The play leaves you thinking how each man’s desires and selfishness have blinded themselves from a brighter, better Posa, the man who had a vision and tried his hardest to bring it to fruition.

Tom Burke as Roderigo at Exeter Northcott Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard
I thoroughly enjoyed this first production from Tom Burke and Gadi Roll’s new production company, Ara. It was a bold choice to open with and showed Ara’s commitment to showing non-naturalistic versions of classic plays. For some of the audience it was a step too far on the visionary highway, however I thought it was outstanding work from the entire cast to keep me enthralled for 3 hours on those theatre seats. (Now this is where people will say, but you’re a Tom Burke fan, you’re not going to be critical of him.) Well, to the naysayers, I bought a ticket for my partner on the last night of my holibobs. He didn’t know the story, is not particularly a fan of Tom, nor a fan of theatre. He enjoyed it and could see what Tom and Gadi were trying to achieve and was astounded at the bad reviews the so called professional critics were giving the production. His rating…7/10.

There were issues with the sound. I understand what Gadi was trying to achieve with the characters speaking quickly at one another like rapid machine-gun fire, but the acoustics of the theatre did not allow the idea to work as imagined. I found the staging intimate, and quickly realised that having to actively listen meant I engaged more with the characters and the story. This was certainly a play I didn’t drift off thinking about what to make for dinner the next day. I’m not sure whether my ears tuned in quicker when I saw it for a second time, but I did find it easier to follow, with only two characters being inaudible for me (and that was only when they had their backs to me.) I think the speed of speech had been tweaked a little, and so it’s possible the combination of speed and having seen it before allowed me to ignore the sound issues until the rude and unnecessary interruption of a member of the public at the interval (see footnote). A few elements needed polishing, but I found the night an intimate, interesting and modern take on the passion, politics and power of the Royal Court.   

Having read some of the reviews, I felt like it wasn’t just the actors on stage wearing sunglasses, but also some of the theatre critics and audience members. Their judgements were clouded by not wanting to see the bigger picture, to not want to get involved by having to put a bit of effort in for themselves. They wanted the actors to do all the work, so they could sit back and be spoon fed the story as though they were watching some daytime TV drama.

I enjoyed feeling slightly confused, unsure and uncomfortable as characters faced-off one another. It’s not a realistic drama, Schiller took dramatic licence with the story of the royal family (he even brought forward the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the decline of Phillip’s empire) and therefore I hold with the idea that it doesn’t need to be a naturalistic production either. Dramatic licence can be used in all its forms.

And I find it interesting that Schiller felt the need to answer his critics in a series of letters explaining his play. I hope the same does not happen to Tom Burke and Gadi Roll. I hope they don’t feel that they must answer their audiences, but instead that they enjoy and are proud of their achievements instead.

I’m going to see the production again as it draws to a close at Kingston, however, I’m now waiting with bated breath to see what Tom and Gadi have in store for their audiences in their next classic production.

For tickets and information at Southampton and Kingston click on the links!

Footnote to Wednesday 17th October production.

On Monday night, having watched the play and then sat by the front door waiting for my taxi, Tom appeared, said hello and we started chatting. I told him I’d enjoyed the play, but there were times I couldn’t hear a thing…and I was sitting on the front row! I wasn’t sure how the problem could be cured, but something needed doing as that was the main criticism I heard from people around me.

Tom explained that if they had the audience on both sides of the stage (the stage running down the middle) the actors would be more audible to the audience, but they couldn’t do this seating arrangement in this theatre.

On Wednesday, during the interval, just before the actors took to the stage, a man appeared and asked for a show of hands as to who couldn’t hear. At first I thought he was a member of staff – then I realised it was someone who wanted their little moment of glory.

After his outburst, Tom Burke came out and addressed the audience – a brave move, and one I was proud of him for. He explained that they had cut 60 pages of text from the play and it was still 3 hours long at the quick pace the show runs at. If they slowed down the delivery, the play would take longer than King Lear to get through. I was glad that he was able to defend the play and the directorial choices that had been employed, but also allowing the man – a paying consumer- to have his opinion.

I have immense respect for the cast coming out after hearing the outburst and right of reply. They continued to perform the play to the best of their ability knowing the hostile view of some of the audience. At the end several people gave a standing ovation, a show of solidarity amongst those who had enjoyed an evening of contemporary drama. I believe if the play had been slowed down it would have lost its dramatic impact, however, I thought it had been reined in ever so slightly from the Monday night, as I noticed it was a lot clearer. (Either that or my ears had tuned into the different style of theatre I was viewing!)