wed 21/11/2018

Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

Luise Miller, Donmar Warehouse

Young lovers manipulated to a tragic end speak across the centuries

Then as now: Felicity Jones as Luise Miller, a pawn in the hands of men's controlling urgesImages © Johan Persson

Time lurches when you see a historical play. But is it a case of autre temps, autres moeurs, or of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Either way, the history needs to slap your face hard with recognition. Schiller’s Luise Miller is a 1784 play that clearly fires at its own vicious contemporary world, a catastrophically corrupt and unruly coalition of German states, and is its world just too far from our own to believe in the tragic young lovers at its core? By no means, in Michael Grandage’s stirring, lucid production at the Donmar, his penultimate before he steps down as artistic director.

Mike Poulton has written a new English version that re-mints the flawed heroes and pieces of appalling human crud fighting through a blasted jungle of politics where love has nothing to do with anything, and young people’s idealism comes to a bad end. This is a more domestic take on the disposability of true feelings that Schiller portrayed in his later royal plays Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, both ringingly staged by Grandage in the past, this time with a vulnerable 16-year-old fiddler's daughter as its heroine. Schiller was only 24 when he wrote it, and it's the robust physical promise and sweetness of youth that this production homes in on, with much poignancy.

LuiseMiller_MaxBennett_FelicityJones_cJPerssonThe period costumes, cravats, brocades and jewels are worn with modern hair - the then-and-now look feels fresh, and the verbal delivery by the cast is fast and up to date. The girl at the centre of the story is the merest pawn of male controlling urges, her young boyfriend (who will kill her), her protective father and her boyfriend’s pitiless, immoral father, machinating to protect his own status by any means however foul. There are girls on the run in Britain today escaping from just such situations; this play feels alive.

Its weakness is that it tends to strain some of its characters' actions beyond credibility: Verdi's operas Luisa Miller and Don Carlos are probably better known than the source dramas, and certainly Schiller's play has “opera” written all over it. Luise is a jobbing musician’s daughter in love with the son of the German Chancellor - an impossible marriage in the circumstances. The play’s second half has a schematic improbability that undermines the formidable emotional force of the first, in which the youth’s attempts to free himself from his father’s degenerate world reveal, inexorably, that there are no limits to human corruptibility and cynicism in the political jungle.

The question of the limits to the duty owed by young people to their parents, good or ill, surges up repeatedly - when Ferdinand fights his appalling father, holds a blade to his neck, young Luise is horrified: in her experience dads are loving and wise, and she will not accept that a son can disrupt the bond like this no matter what the provocation. (Pictured right, Max Bennett and Felicity Jones as the young lovers.)

It’s interesting how Schiller nailed the observation that young people, no matter how passionately they adore each other, can come to sudden rifts over half-understood ethical ideas, neither of them able to surmount their conditioning. Ferdinand can’t believe, given his court upbringing, that anyone can be totally incorruptible - Luise, who is as incorruptible as they come, can’t believe he could be so untrusting. The tragedy is not that they die, but that they die together in a misunderstanding, because he’s an idiotic fool. Even as the dying lovers kiss, you know he murdered her.

Max Bennett is terrific as the hotheaded young Ferdinand, very fit in his hussar’s uniform, and strongly physically attracted to Felicity Jones’s very young-seeming Luise, a girl shadowed by anxiety.

LuiseMiller_BenDaniels_MaxBennett_cJPerssonFinty Williams and Paul Higgins make an appealingly earthy, volatile couple as her parents, but Ferdinand’s father, the Chancellor, has to veer from comic villainy with the loathsome Wurm and the Mandelsonian Prince’s Chamberlain right over to pitiless monster, and the rangy, personable Ben Daniels (pictured left, with Max Bennett) was not quite warped enough to bluff his way through.

John Light’s Wurm, however, is as creepy and slithery as they come. Like an Iago, he has a deep coldness in his performance that makes something of the underworld about the heretical scene where he pulls an altarpiece out of his bag in order to force Luise to swear to a lie that will make her his slave. Schiller makes Wurm’s last words his threat to spill all the Chancellor’s filthy secrets to save his own neck - it seems all too likely that this toad could beat the rap. Cynicism wins.

Almost the best kept till last, there is a sumptuous performance in the otherwise dubious cameo part of Lady Milford, the despotic royal mistress who’s now threatened with deposition. Schiller gives her a picaresque backstory where, like Princess Eboli in Don Carlos, she tells how she used her beauty and intelligence “royally outfoxing all the royal foxes". Despite the impression that Lady Milford is shoehorned in somewhat expediently to keep the other characters sorted, Alex Kingston, with her velvety voice, plush bosom and rampant hair, is a wondrous presence, and her disappearance in Part Two in convenient self-exile casts a cloud over the rest of the play.

Placido Domingo sings the wounded Act II aria "Quando la sere al placido" from Verdi's opera Luisa Miller in a 1979 Covent Garden performance

There are girls on the run in Britain today escaping from just such situations; this play feels alive

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