Director Michael Grandage has made the plays of Friedrich Schiller something of a specialty. his DON CARLO with Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle was so good that I didn't miss Verdi's magnificent music for his operatic setting of the play. MARY STUART with Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer was riveting. And now his version of Schiller's early play, KABALLE UND LIEBE (Intrigue and Love) has opened at the Donmar as LUISE MILLER. Again, I know this work from Verdi's operatic version, LUISA MILLER, but had never seen the play which, according to the program essay, is the most produced play of this great, great playwright in his native land.
LUISE MILLER is what is termed a "bourgeois tragedy," a genre that became popular in the mid-18th century (Schiller's play was first performed in 1774). These plays center on a middle class family who are threatened and destroyed by the prevailing class system. Louise is the daughter of a musician who gains most of his income from appearances at court. She falls in love with the son of the most powerful man in the region. He loves her in return but his ruthless father wants to marry him off to someone who will confer more power on the family. It does not end well for poor Luise. In the hands of some playwrights of the period, this sort of story is pure pathos. In Schiller's hands, it is a blistering picture of a society in which ruthless despots rule. The only thing of value is power and those who have it simply don't care about anyone else. Schiller is the great 18th century advocate of liberty and even his domestic dramas focus on politics. He also takes a complex view of what could be stock characters. The noble young man is dangerously naive. The villainness is herself exploited and knows it.
Grandage obviously loves these plays and knows how to make them work for a contemporary audience. Schiller's plays are grand -- almost operatic (no wonder Verdi was drawn to them) -- but Grandage finds a balance between the grand emotions and the intimate space of the Donmar. His staging is simple and effecting and the setting is spare -- a necessity on the open stage of he Donmar. The lighting is harsh but effective. Most of all, Grandage knows how to bring out the best in his actors. Alex Kingston (of ER and DR WHO fame) is terrific as the cynical mistress. She has the longest speeches in the play and finds all the emotional changes in them. Ben Daniels and John Light are a great pair as the tyrannical Chancellor and his henchman, aptly named Wurm. The always reliable Paul Higgins makes Luisa's father totally believable -- a nice, somewhat ineffectual man trying to protect his family. I don't think I have ever seen Felicity Jones before, but her Luisa was not just a sweet young thing. She was tough when she needed to be.
There were a few jarring anachronisms in Mike Poulton's translation, but on the whole it was effective.
This is one of Michael Grandage's last productions as artistic director of the Donmar and one of his best.
LUISE MILLER. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. June 8, 2011.