by Friedrich Schiller
English translation by Mike Poulton
Directed by Michael Grandage
Donmar Warehouse, London
Star-crossed Geliebte. The trouble with taking Shakespeare as your model is that you can’t hide it and you will always be in his shadow. In 1784, writing his third play, Friedrich Schiller remixed the ingredients of Romeo and Juliet to concoct his perfervid tragedy, Luise Miller. Two lovers die by drinking poison at the end, and there are contending fathers, anguished partings, and extravagant avowals of undying passion (“undying” seems to be an automatic death sentence in the theater). Without the poetry, Shakespeare loses an immeasurable amount, but the twenty-four-year-old Schiller was left with a template for doomed romance. He made extraordinary use of it, and although Luise Miller contains no Mercutio, emotions get so capriciously out of hand that it can seem as if everyone on stage is a Mercutio.
The setup is pure As Die Welt Turns: two women, one very bad, the other unbelievably good, love the same young nobleman. The bad woman, Lady Milford (Alex Kingston), is the famous royal mistress Madame du Barry transposed to Germany as an “English drab” — the phrase couldn’t have been there in Schiller’s script, but it gets a laugh in London. The good woman is young Luise Miller (Felicity Jones), daughter of a court musician; she is essentially an emblem of every virginal virtue that could be assembled from patient Griselda onward. Unlike Shakespeare, Schiller doesn’t introduce his characters before love strikes — Lady Milford is hotly panting, Luise is on cloud nine when the curtain rises.
They are brought into confrontation when the Lord Chancellor (Ben Daniels) orders his son Ferdinand (Max Bennett) — the much-desired young nobleman — to wed Lady Milford in a sham marriage. Their union is a ruse for keeping a favored mistress at court while the ruler takes a legitimate wife. Ferdinand is repelled and appalled; he has promised himself eternally to Luise. What saves the plot from being merely operatic (“merely” hardly seems fair since it was Verdi who set the play to music) is Schiller’s ability to write intense scenes of conflict, and his penchant for ideas. Here the essential idea is the corruption of the ancien régime. Luise and Ferdinand are innocents of the kind created in the mind of Rousseau, standing apart — and redeeming — the corruption of the court, with its intrigues, fops, secret dealings, not to mention torture, blackmail, and a Duke raddled with decadence and pox. The fact that the setting and the Duke go unnamed indicates how widely Schiller wants to aim his scattershot.
The fervor of Schiller’s belief has not sputtered out over time. The scenes where virtue confronts sin are fiercely rhetorical and romantically felt. He finds a surprising number of ways to play changes on the characters. Luise standing up to her ladyship, her father shaming the Lord Chancellor, and Ferdinand defending his honor (several times) have a zeal that parallels Beethoven’s similar hope for a brave new world. And of course, Beethoven set Schiller’s words in the Ninth Symphony. On this occasion the odes to joy expressed by the young lovers (in prose, via a fast-moving vernacular translation by Mike Poulton) are counterpointed with intimations of violent revolution and the rot from within of the old order.
If the ideals and ideas are still potent, the tone of Schiller’s play has become more exhausting than inspiring, because almost every scene is set at fever pitch, with continual shouting and speechifying. The Romantic hero was a genuine creation, but he never lost sight of himself in the mirror. It’s a tribute to Michael Grandage’s swift pacing and the cast’s uniformly expert portrayals that we don’t feel manipulated by poseurs taking advantage of the audience’s automatic sympathy for young love in bloom. Still, it’s the devious and conniving characters who stick in the mind. For me, Kingston’s Lady Milford stole the show as the fallen woman who holds immense power because she has the ear of the Duke. Schiller asks for not one but three about-faces as Lady Milford confronts her lost virtue, yet the writing is trenchant and Kingston white hot (she was mostly sweet reason and devotion as Dr. Elizabeth Corday when she came to the U.S. as part of the cast of ER).
Another high-profile TV star, from the British version of Law & Order, Ben Daniels runs away with the plum role of the Lord Chancellor, packed with rage, political cunning, and his own about-faces as he fights and loves his son — their battle of wills prefigures Schiller’s masterpiece, Don Carlos (a previous stage triumph for Grandage and company) and is no less powerful. As a witty, flaming lampoon of fops at court, David Dawson’s Hoffmarschall — proclaiming himself an irresistible lady’s man who might have had a few slip-ups with boys — gave the translator a welcome opportunity to leaven the tragedy with wit, and the audience was delighted. But when everyone is standing around screaming, the quiet man has a chance to shine, as Paul Higgins does as Luise’s devoted father. Using a Scottish accent to surprisingly good effect, Higgins portrays the common man finding his way to moral strength, eventually putting even the Lord Chancellor in his place, at the risk of being hanged. Higgins far surpassed the role’s walking metaphor to achieve the most genuinely moving performance of the evening.
In the midst of these brightly lit characters, the putative villain, Wurm (what a name!) has to stand in line to get attention, but John Light found crevices that he could open, at least for a line or two, and insinuate himself. Which leaves us, unfortunately, with the glaring weakness of the play and this production: the two lovers. The London critics praised Jones’s Luise and Bennett’s Ferdinand, but these two attractive actors, picture perfect as they were, faced impossibilities that kept mounting up as the play progressed. Schiller’s contrivances clearly work backwards. He wants to end with Ferdinand poisoning first Luise and then himself, so whatever it takes — oaths sworn on the sacred host, forced silence, a letter of seeming betrayal written under the threat of blackmail, or Othello-like blind jealousy — the playwright is willing to pile it on. Here Verdi had the better of Schiller; the most ridiculous situations go down well if you sing about them.
The play is such a rich Christmas pudding of cabals and love (Schiller’s original title in German) that nobody much minds if a few stale almonds and over-ripe plums get thrown in. It’s impressive, in fact, how much of Shakespeare you can do without and still achieve something close to genius. Schiller arguably has had no lasting influence in the English-speaking world, yet while we are in his bubbling pot, he brings us to the boil quite nicely. After all, that was a seasonal temperature for true romantics.