I had wanted to see Ben Daniels live on stage ever since I saw him in Law and Order UK for the first time – understandable – that voice, those eyes, that stern demeanour, these emotions displayed on his face. So when he dropped out of the show I immediately inquired if there were any theatre plans in his near future. And then it was Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, a play I (and countless unhappy kids with me) had been forced to read at school for agonizing weeks and weeks, a klunker of a play that – the way we saw it – had little to no relevance in today’s world. But I was not to be deterred, I wanted to see what them Brits were going to make of this Sturm und Drang classic that had cost me more than one headache.
Picture my delight that, when I finally arrived in London to see the play, fate and current affairs like the Murdoch trial had turned the erstwhile “clunker” into a very topical play, and it had also shifted the focus from the Romeo and Juliet like love story to the machinations and shenanigans of the men in powerat the German court. Having said that I also must state that this was just an added bonus. The play itself had been tightened to a riveting two and a half hours, had been dusted and cleaned up and brushed up and did draw ovations and great reviews from audiences and critics alike even before the press scandal of hacked phones and bribed informants broke. Mike Poulton, who had basically and thankfully rewritten the play, had done the editing with love and obvious joy and therefore ensured that every memory of my schooldays was eradicated within the first few moments after the imaginary curtain rose.
Schiller wrote this play as his revenge – he’d been incarcerated for leaving his Duke’s realm without permission (he had gone to oversee the first production of his play The Robbers). So rightfully incensed he created an imaginary duchy with a Prince living far above his means with a mistress whose influence keeps him satisfied and therefore her in money. The true ruler of the duchy is the Chancellor though, a man who seems void of any feelings, intent on amassing power through cunning, treason and fraud, which he plans on passing on to his son. To make this plan happen, he already has furthered his son Ferdinand’s career in the army. Now he takes another step towards gaining ultimate power: The prince, who is planning to marry, has to install his mistress in an honorable position at court in order to keep her by his side during his marriage. Thus Lady Milford must be married, too. And she and the Chancellor both want Ferdinand to take this position.
Ferdinand, who has fallen in love with the pure but poor musician’s daughter Luise, who, at 16, lives only for the moments Ferdinand comes to their home to learn how to play the violin. Thanks to Secretary Wurm (brilliantly played by Lloyd Everitt) – who had tried to woo Luise himself but hadn’t succeeded – news of the affair and a secret proposal reach the Chancellor. What happens now is not only a brilliant transferral from Schiller’s lyrics to almost modern prose, it is also a very cynical and sharp view into modern politics and the way in which people are simply dealt with when they become involved in state’s affairs.
….the Chancellor, using every wile and threat in the book, is implacable: “Forget love – forget affection – in this bitter world all that matters is the hand that rules it.” At least that’s what Ben Daniels’s transfixingly ruthless Chancellor says in Mike Poulton’s bold new version at the Donmar Warehouse. From the review of the Telegraph on June 14th.
“The stuff of seduction is also the stuff of politics. Lies and promises!” .. This is the tag line for the play and emphasizes the depth of ruthlessness that will lead to the destruction of a whole court. With lies the Chancellor – and Ben Daniels is brilliant as the power hungry politician who is stopped by nothing to get what he wants, until the very end … when he suddenly discovers that all that devastation he has brought didn’t strike nameless faces but his own flesh and blood – gets his son to leave Luise. With lies Lady Milford gets the prince to marry her off to Ferdinand and with lies the court conspires to isolate the one pure soul and destroy her in the process, when Luise is forced to sign another lie to make the Chancellor’s plans happen.
It seems like overkill and yet stunningly topical when in the end both lovers die, Lady Milford decides to flee the court, the Secretary is imprisoned and takes the Chancellor with him – von Walter giving himself up when faced with the death of his son and the end of his career. The court though will stay the same – the prince’s reputation won’t be harmed, and there will be another “hand that rules” the duchy.
The cast – mostly brilliantly chosen – I wasn’t too keen on Felicity Jones’ Luise Miller who came across as whiney and rather declamatory at times. But maybe that stood out so gratingly because everyone else was just amazing. I already mentioned Wurm, and Hofmarshall von Kalb (Daniel Dawson) was every bit as marvellous in his mannerisms and barely concealed lust for forbidden fruit- a cardinal sin in those days. But the strongest actor by far was Ben Daniels, who managed (pardon the language) to frighten the shit out of me when he forces his son to pay Lady Milford a visit. His rage and barely contained anger were hair raising – until he actually looms over the cowering son and almost, just almost hits him – marvellous. That he is able to shift from ruthless politician to actually guilt ridden father is thrilling to watch and testimony to his talent.
Now onto the fun stuff: the stage-dooring before and after the play 😉
The whole cast was absolutely amazing – affectionate, friendly, taking time for their fans. Ben Daniels easily won over my two friends with his charm and humor and took the time for little chats even though personal guests were waiting for him. It’s always nice to see that the most talented actors are also nicest to the people waiting for them.
What was disappointing – there were a lot of professional Autograph hunters there; people who resell pics on eBay, who don’t even have the decency to see the play at least once. No surprise that Alex Kingston – a very regal and layered Lady Milford in the play – looked not very happy when she was accosted by some of them with pictures of her as River Song. Needless to say I do not condone this kind of behaviour!