Skip to content

Don Carlos

by on 8 November 2018

Moths Pinned in the Light

Don Carlos

by Friedrich Schiller, translation by Robert David MacDonald

ARA, Exeter Northcott, Nuffield Theatres and RTK Co-production at Rose Theatre, Kingston until 17th November

A review by Mark Aspen

Shadows, moths flitting around a flame, afraid of the dark, but afraid of getting burnt. This is the atmosphere of the dark and edgy version of Schiller’s masterpiece now running at Kingston’s Rose Theatre.

Schiller’s tragedy, which he completed in Dresden in 1787 having incurred the displeasure of various authorities in other parts of Germany, is loosely based on historical events in Spain in the 1560’s during the reign of King Philip II. History’s verdict on Philip is to paint him as a tyrant, and it was from this viewpoint that Schiller wrote his play, with some prescience as it was two years before the storming of the Bastille ignited the French Revolution and stirred revolutionary furore throughout Europe. Schiller himself knew of the dangers of messing with authority.

Don Carlos Misc 01

The Rose production invites us to draw parallels with modern times worldwide, and designer Rosanna Vize has taken a scorched-earth approach to the piece, stripping out set, scenery, costume and mannerisms that would fix it in the 16th Century, or indeed in any century. Her stated idea is that “details … distract from the bigger picture” and the story can be told “with the bare bones of what is required”. In practice this means that she has abdicated the design to the lighting designer Jonathan Samuels, whose harsh un-gelled lanterns inhabit the stage like silent actors. Startling (and, for some of the audience, blinding) at first, I must admit that the stark lighting design grew on me. We have a vast minimalist and monochrome design that counterintuitively creates a stifling feeling of claustrophobia. The human actors, the protagonists in Schillers’ dense plot, are pinned to their places by the lamps of the lantern-actors, like moths to a museum display board. I later realised that the mise-en-scene is that of the “Black Paintings” of (Schiller’s contemporary) Francisco Goya’s later Quinta del Sordo period, foreboding, melancholy, threatening: Goya at his darkest.

Don Carlos Misc 03

Philip, who had been married to Mary I of England, try to forge another political alliance in 1559 by marrying Elizabeth de Valois, daughter of Henri II of France. This was in spite of the fact that Elizabeth was already engaged to Don Carlos, Philip’s teenage son. This is the starting point for Schiller’s Don Carlos, with the anonymous prince’s incendiary reaction to his father usurping his engagement. What follows is the intricate web of intrigue and counter-intrigue, of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that forms the tangled plot of the play. This requires concentration from an audience, and it certainly gets it from the Rose audience, notwithstanding the play’s three-hour plus duration.

Don Carlos Rich5

Maybe the cast are conscious that here is a lot of play to fit in. The opening dialogues are rushed to the point of gabbling and much of the important content of the early scenes are missed, but when the play settles in, so do the speeches, which in translation largely retain the blank verse of the original text. Also significantly the import of the long reflective silences underlines the edginess of the play, and this feeling is enhanced by the quivering music of the sound track.


The sound design is the creation of director Cadi Roll and forms part of the overall stylisation of the piece, the form of which is shaped by the concepts of his new theatre company, Ara, set up by Roll and the actor Tom Burke. Technical theatre and action are entwined in a dynamic way, rather than established at the outset. So, the on-stage lanterns are wheeled around the stage, and no only in scene (in the sense of time) changes, almost becoming part of the action. There is a problem with this, in that the audience are static, so the lanterns often mask the action. And having actors facing each another, faces strongly lit by side battens, hides the action from much of the audience. Or is this to make us feel the uneasiness of in interrogation? Costumes are black and white, except for the occasional touch of red (the lining for the king’s coat for example and of course the red carpet). However, the stifling confinement of an oppressive court comes strongly across.

Don Carlos Production Photos ©The Other Richard


In this production, Tom Burke plays the part of the Marquis of Posa, a companion of the prince since boyhood, whom Don Carlos confides in. The Marquis is deeply concerned to hear Don Carlos tell of his continuing love for Elizabeth, now his step-mother, but nevertheless vows friendship to help him. In turn, asks for the prince’s support for his quest to alleviate the Flemish people from the tyrannical policies imposed by Philip. Gradually Posa is sucked relentlessly into the court intrigues. He manages to gain the King’s confidence, even though he has radical convictions and a heretical religious stance. You see, he appears to the king to be unique in speaking up honestly. However, in the end, to keep his oath to Don Carlos, whist trading a dangerously thin line with the King, he is the one to be sacrificed. Burke’s Marquis de Posa is calm, rational and level headed. He draws on an internal strength to think on his feet, although even he is not above threatening murder to advance the cause. Burke’s portrayal is strong, empathetic and self-sufficient. (However, his later role as the blind nonagenarian Grand Inquisitor is not so convincing.)

Samuel Valentine fills the eponymous role of Don Carlos with a jagged nervous energy, portraying a man in constant state of frustration: about the alienated affections of his hitherto fiancée, about his father’s refusal to allow him to lead troops in the Netherlands, about the impunity with which other members of the court insult him. King Philip does not trust his son; in fact, he does not trust anybody, even his new wife. Darrell d’Silva, in this role, plays Philip’s reaction to this lack of trust with anger, but then again the King seems to be angry about everything, from trivialities to matters of life or death. He is angry about not killing the right man; he is angry about killing the wrong man. He gets so angry that the makes himself ill, but what d’Silva gives is a one-dimensional character who has no other emotion. Even his basting-off of a loud klaxon doesn’t bring down the steam. He starts highly fired up and stays there.

Don Carlos Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Schiller’s much more rounded and subtle characters are the women. Kelly Gough’s Elizabeth of Valois is dignified and regal, a princess who understands her position in the social standing and the protocols that go with it, a woman with her emotions under control. She is eyed with suspicion as a foreigner in the court and is a butt of unfounded accusations, but she rides out these waves. The Princess of Eboli is potentially in a more precarious position. Young and vulnerable, she is importuned by the King, and does not have the power to reject his advances. Yet she is in love with Don Carlos, and when he rejects her, she has all the guile of the woman scorned and her fury is unleashed. Alexandra Dowling’s portrayal of the Princess is nuanced, a character who is a once spirited and fragile.

Don Carlos Rich10


The court is however largely populated by men. The éminence grise is Domingo, the king’s confessor, right-hand man and procurer, who spends his time sowing poisonous seeds. Jason Morell is suitably sleazy in this role. Stephen Ventra’s Count Lerma, the Commander of the King’s Guard plays a pragmatic man, trying to keep his head above water … and on his shoulders. Don Carlos’ nemesis is the Duke of Alba, the King’s emissary in the Low Countries, who commands the armies in Flanders, but secretly would rid the court of both Don Carlos and Elizabeth. Vinta Morgan is unconvincing in this role, lacking the gravitas of the aristocrat, and instead of proud deportment a noble, we have the swagger of a night-club bouncer.

Don Carlos Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Perhaps all this is a reduction to the “purified” theatre of Roll and Vize. Does it say we are all in danger of tyranny? The portrayals are certainly widened. Elizabeth is a French princess, now living with her royal husband in Spain, but speaking with an Irish accent. (Gough’s native accent). Does this show the universality of Philip’s pan-European tyranny? What the effect is though is to reduce the universality to a uniformity.

Don Carlos Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Picking up the invitation to draw parallels with tyrannies in modern times, the tyranny of uniformity has come from stifling dominance of faceless power that reduces individuality, the faceless brutality of The Soviet Union, or the faceless bureaucracy of the European Union, which crush individuality into the greyness of uniformity. In the last century we have had totalitarian tyrants, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, who have possibly put Philip II of Spain into the shade. The overall picture of this Don Carlos is that created by the physical design and overlaid by the direction: not a black and white world, not a totalitarian tyranny, but a tyranny of uniformity, a tyranny that produces a stark, bleak greyness.

Still, where are the moths?

Mark Aspen
November 2018

Photography by ©The Other Richard

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: