By Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Angus Jackson
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Wednesday 10th June 2009
It’s rare for me to miss the second half of something, as even quite dull productions can improve after the interval, but tonight’s performance was too much even for my boredom threshold. I wasn’t interested in the political manoeuvrings, the characters were largely insipid, there was no tension or drama for me and although I’d smiled at a few of the jokes, there were too few of them to keep me coming back. I admit it’s been a tiring week so far, but in similar circumstances I’ve managed to enjoy a number of productions more than this one, so I don’t think it’s entirely down to me.
The set was a sprawl of paving slanted across the stage with a slight rake. At the back was a peculiar wall – couldn’t really make it out – with double doors in the middle facing the slanted paving. A couple of bare tree trunks completed the picture. We could see through to the back at either side, and presumably through the doors when they were open (we weren’t in the right position to see).
The story concerns Wallenstein, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces for a large part of the Thirty Years War. He was promised the Kingdom of Bohemia by the Emperor when he took the job on, but the Emperor has not been “in the giving vein” for quite some time, so ambition is vying with loyalty and Wallenstein is contemplating a pact with the Swedes (currently enemies) so he can turn his forces on Vienna, clear out all his political opponents and gain his crown. His daughter and wife are involved (in a minor key), he has various generals who are loyal to him and some who are in the pay of the Emperor’s people, there are emissaries from Vienna and the Swedes (at least in the first half) and we get an early glimpse of a friar who preaches against Wallenstein to his own men (he’s bundled off stage pretty quickly).
It’s the familiar story of the successful leader brought down by the jealousy and fears of others, albeit a version with lots of nooks and crannies, and for once the leader himself has plenty of ambition and arrogance. There are a lot of arguments presented but few real feelings, which is probably why I found it difficult to get involved. Steve had seen a previous adaptation years ago at the RSC so perhaps he enjoyed this one more because he’s already seen a good production. Schiller had so much material when writing about Wallenstein that another version apparently runs to ten hours on stage, so at least this adaptation is a reasonable length but perhaps that’s its problem – too much to cram into the time. The actors were all doing a fine job, as usual, but it wasn’t for me.
I did like the emphasis on the fact that Wallenstein and his generals were paying their men out of their own coffers. It makes it seem even more unreasonable for the Emperor to sack Wallenstein and still expect to keep his armies to fight with, but that’s politicians for you. I wish they’d made more of the fact that this was a war where people kept changing sides, enemies becoming friends and vice versa. Despite the apparent principles involved – Catholicism versus Protestantism – there’s little to be seen of principles through the smoke of war, and bringing out that contrast more could have given the piece more humour and more focus, but it was not to be. Ah well.
I did attend the post-show, and there were some interesting questions and answers. Nothing that changes my opinion of this production, alas, but I’d be more interested in seeing a different version. The adaptor’s focus was on showing a man who had a fantasy of kingship but who didn’t really understand what it was about. I might have engaged with the piece better if that aspect had come out more in the first half. The cast apparently didn’t do much research into the history or the full Schiller version as it wouldn’t have helped; the real history and geography are merely ‘inspirational material’ for Schiller in a similar way to Shakespeare’s histories. The audience were generally appreciative, and I’m glad there were so many staying behind for the post-show as it made for a better discussion.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me