It’s often said that the Devil has the best lines; and this is certainly the case in Michael Grandage’s staging of Friedrich Schiller’s early piece of political melodrama. However, in this swipe at the inequities of the eighteenth-century German aristocracy, man is the demon and God is a spoilt prince cosseted away in his court, ignorant of the suffering of his people. And all the while, Mike Poulton’s vivid translation rings with the bitter laughter of an idealist who rails against the corrupt and their rat-trap institutions but cannot help but be fascinated by them.
The play opens on a sparse set consisting of a rough-hewn table with a violin on it. A long shaft of light cuts downwards and through the smoke-filled air to illuminate the instrument. However, although this tableau evokes religious paintings, we quickly learn that Heaven is absent. Instead of grandeur, Grandage and designer Peter McKintosh use the Donmar’s soaring space to create a powerful sense of emptiness. The message is clear: there are no greater truths to be found here.
The violin belongs to Miller, a roughly-spoken music teacher and devoted father to Luise, a pious beauty who has become romantically involved with Ferdinand, a high-ranking captain in the German army and the Chancellor’s only son. Miller’s anger and fear about the consequences of this union of high and low prove to be well-founded; when his enraged father discovers the affair, Ferdinand is forcibly engaged to the prince’s mistress, Lady Milford, and Luise’s faith is used against her to ensure her complicity in the arrangement. Natures are corrupted and family ties are discarded by a ruthless ruling class that will stop at nothing to preserve its position at the top of a teetering social order.
Everything works backwards in this nightmarish world. Murky half-light obscures rather than illuminates courtiers and politicians as they weave between pillars to plot and conspire, leaving them as indistinct as their motives. And we know that Ferdinand and Luise are doomed when they describe their relationship as transcendent. In a society where religious items are bundled into a suitcase like second-hand ornaments, there’s no room for idealised love. We pity them for their naiveté and laugh in spite of ourselves when the Chancellor makes lewd jokes about buttering crusts or shoving thumbs in dishes.
As the Chancellor, Ben Daniels is twinkly-eyed and craggily handsome, imbuing the character with a mixture of wry cynicism and casual menace that washes across the stage in waves of humour or explodes into spitting anger when his position is challenged. His callous use of fatherhood to manipulate Ferdinand into marriage should make anyone who still feels like a teenager around their parents shift uneasily in their seat. As the Chancellor’s masochistic henchman Wurm, John Light is also up there in the Machiavellian stakes; his thin-lipped poker face twitching with a curdled mixture of lust for Luisa and bitter self-loathing. Meanwhile, David Dawson grabs most of the laughs as the hilariously camp Hofmarschall von Kalb, sashaying around the stage in a blur of make-up, jewels and French affectations.
In the end, if there’s any sliver of hope to be found in this adaptation of Luise Miller, it rests with the “English Lady” Milford rather than the fiddler’s daughter and her heartthrob lover with his chiselled good looks – perhaps out of necessity, the pair are just too good to be true. No, the prospect of salvation, at least of an earthly kind, lies in the story of the prince’s mistress who, by the end of the play, has exiled herself from court and in doing so broken free of the gilded cage she has built for herself through the years and the tears. Spilling out of her dress and her eyes flashing with a lifetime’s worth of hurt, Alex Kingston is magnificent in the role, radiating sensuality, anger, authority and, finally, compassion for Luise. She is the refreshingly all-too human heart of this superb production, which brims with exceptional performances and breathes new life into Schiller’s all-encompassing vision of the world.