Nine years at the Donmar Warehouse have taught departing director Michael Grandage and his design team to play this intimate building like the fine instrument it is. Shot through with the luminosity, clarity and quality that have become the signature house style here, this revival of Schiller’s 1784 tragedy ‘Luise Miller’ is exquisite.
Grandage has a real feeling for the operatic emotions and realpolitikal relish of this German writer: ‘Don Carlos’ was his final production at the Sheffield Crucible and Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar revival of ‘Mary Stuart’ wowed Broadway.
‘Luise Miller’, written five years before the storming of the Bastille, is more of a young man’s play. There are gorgeous, richly cynical scenes of court politicking – Ben Daniels and John Light are breathtakingly good as a corrupt yet magnificent chancellor and his slithering secretary, Wurm. Politics, declares Daniels in Mike Poulton’s electrifying new version, is seduction: ‘In this bitter world all that matters is the hand that rules it.’ With his black heart, golden demeanour and epic stratagems, he’s so charismatic that he’d dominate the play if its heart were not with the young lovers he oppresses.
Essentially, this is a sturm und drang ‘Romeo and Juliet’: its sweethearts, the Chancellor’s son and a poor musician’s daughter, cross the class divide between the rich and amoral court and the pious middle class that feeds it.
Felicity Jones is a steel rose as Luise Miller: heartbreakingly young and in love, yet capable of utterly routing Alex Kingston’s Machiavellian royal mistress merely by telling her the truth instead of flattering lies. At the other end of the moral scale, David Dawson is equally superb as camp courtier Hofmarschal, a poisoned butterfly fluttering attendance on powerbrokers who despise his ill-concealed homosexuality.
Schiller’s play has youthful flaws – its plot, borrowed from Shakespeare, overbalances in a flimsy and melodramatic climax. Those flaws are forgivable because it captures, as this extraordinary production shows, the intense yet fragile bloom of first love as feelingly as the ambitious lust or loss of faith that rots innocence from the core.
In a drama which makes a tragedy out of honour and a rollicking drama out of vice, Paule Constable has surpassed herself, lighting the production with triangular rays which drop from high windows like cathedral columns. No one’s illusions survive the cruel dawn with which he ends the drama, but Grandage and Co leave you chastened, moved and profoundly impressed.