The court’s full of sycophants. The heir to the throne’s meeting a friend returning from abroad. The queen’s in an uncomfortable position. Schiller’s play isn’t exactly subtle in its influences as it ransacks the plot of Hamlet to launch into an attack on church and court. And given that the set is mostly black and the heavily photoshopped posters show our self-obsessed hero brooding, it’s clear that producer Krishna Omkar hasn’t exactly been subtle in targeting this at the emo market either.
Worrying signs, you’ll agree. Despite this, is there any chance that it could actually be good? It’s hard to fault director William Maynard’s adventurous choice of play, but can he pull it off; in a play about stifled individuality, can he make his actors’ presence felt?
The answer to both is, surprisingly, yes. His secret weapon is the superb choice of translation: Mike Poulton goes for a surging, passionate rendering, which fits the spirit of the play perfectly: it feels grand and architectural in a Shakespearean way without feeling so archaic in its language as to be an anachronism, with wry jabs of intertextuality (such as Don Carlos imagining applying for the role of himself) which for once don’t feel like gimmicks. He also goes for the theatricality of it, alternating public life with glimpses beneath the masks: characters stand apart in public, grab and cling to each other in private.
In the lead role, Matt Maltby goes for a rugged, no-nonsense and somewhat unsubtle rendition of self-obsessesion, idealism and anguish at loving his hated father’s new wife and: the passion is perfect and his story of not seeing his father until he was six genuinely heart-breaking, and though he misses a little of his character’s wit at the start (like in a line about first meeting his father signing death-warrants) he warms up to give a very good performance. But Ed Chalk, as the king, is in a different league altogether. I’ve seen Derek Jacobi in this role in an acclaimed performance in London and Chalk is actually better still: dry, ironic, frequently fluty of voice, but also angry: this performance really gives the sense of the his almost, but not quite, unerring self-belief, as the only man in Spain allowed to be himself, signing the death warrants of anyone who seeks to challenge authority and be an individual like him. The other actors can never match him, and several slightly overdo the sinister side of their roles (to be fair, this reviewer wasn’t able to stay for the whole rehearsal and missed out on some of the juicier lines and scenes). Never mind: this play is a strong cocktail of ideas and passion, and the central performance is flawless. Oxford’s emos are in for a treat.