Don Carlos, Northcott Theatre Exeter and touring

THE new company formed by actor Tom Burke and director Gadi Roll chose Friedrich Schiller’s monumental drama Don Carlos for its opening production, and a stark and uncompromising setting in which to frame the complex story.

Loosely based on history, it focuses on the dysfunctional ruling family of Spain in a time of political and religious oppression. The director was convinced of its relevance and importance in the world of 2018, and you can see why.

Spain is ruled by the ruthless Philip II, who (historically) had usurped his own father for the throne. He has married Elizabeth of Valois to cement a treaty with France, but his son Carlos, whose own mother died in childbirth, was engaged to Elizabeth first. Not the best basis for a good father-son relationship.

Don Carlos’s oldest friend, the idealist Marquis of Posa, sees his last chance to right the wrongs of Philip’s rule, freeing his disaffected citizens, stopping wars with other nations and putting Carlos on the throne with the woman he loves. But with ambitious generals, corrupt churchmen and duplicitous courtiers at work, his dreams are dashed and mass destruction is inevitable.

There’s a tense and passionate performance by Samuel Valentine in the title role, with Tom Burke as the visionary but deluded Posa (and, inexplicably, the Grand Inquisitor, adding a touch of magic realism to an interesting but flawed production).

Darrell D’Silva is a mesmerising King Philip, torn between paran­oid self-pity and terrifying despotism.

The problem with this production is in the sets, designed with a Big Idea by Rosanna Vize. She has stripped the wide Northcott stage bare – no flats, no backdrops, full disclosure. The acting area is a raised platform, on which the performers move like chess pieces. The play is very long, and for the first half the actors spoke so fast that it was at times impossible to follow the often complex information they were trying to communicate.

They also shout, and with no baffling effect the voices are often inaudible. Direction to face each other across the stage, rather than the audience, adds to the problem.

Some audience members moved nearer the stage in the interval. Many others left.

I cannot see any solution to the problems, which are further exacerbated by the constant movement of chairs and studio lights around the acting space. These lights, and the bank of 48 rear stage lights, do nothing to illuminate, and nothing to enhance, the understanding of the play. Stopping all these peripheral antics would substantially cut the running time, allowing the actors to slow their delivery.

It’s a challenging but interesting, and yes, relevant, play with some excellent performances. It’s just a pity that someone didn’t realise what the set would do to the sound long, long before it got to the stage.

Don Carlos continues in Exeter until 20th October, before its visit to the Nuffield Theatre in South­amp­ton and its run at The Rose in Kingston-upon-Thames.

Photographs by The Other Richard

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