The Donmar’s got a track record of putting on tricky and neglected European classics: Life is a Dream, Caligula, Creditors, Henry IV among others. Now they’ve turned to Kleist and his 1810 play The Prince of Homburg.
In the play, a high-ranking officer, the
eponymous Prince, has disobeyed an order in battle, leading a charge
before receiving instruction to do so, despite being told to wait for
the order. Even though the result was a famous victory, he has broken
the rules and comes before a Court Martial and is sentenced to death.
He’s expecting a pardon but it becomes clear that the Elector plans to
carry out the sentence, perhaps to make the Elector’s niece, Natalia, in
love with the Prince, available to marry off as part of a peace
settlement. The officers are outraged and petition the Elector, as does
Natalie. The Elector is moved only to write to the Prince promising that
if he can prove the sentence to be unjust he will be pardoned. This
stirs the Prince who seems to accept the justice of his execution.
In Kleist’s original, the Prince is led
to the execution blindfolded whereupon he is told that he has been
pardoned and faints. In Kelly’s version, the sentence is carried out.
This has caused all sorts of fuss, with critics as diverse as Michael Billington, Paul Taylor and Ian Shuttleworth sharply criticising Kelly and the production for changing the ending.
First things first: Kelly’s version is
very good indeed. It’s free-speaking, rich but lean. He’s found some
excellent equivalents for the poetic language of the play but keeps it
sharp and minimal so that it doesn’t get - as some Romantic plays can
get - puffed up with cod-Shakespeareana. It’s also very funny in places.
I particular, Kelly has mined a profitable seam of absurdism in the
play; from the play’s beginning in the midst of a dream to the curious
oneiric turns of the plot, the positions taken to nightmarish extremes,
the play is cruelly funny about the nightmares of a military state, the
demands of law and rule, and the problematic place of the individual.
The ending seems to me entirely of a piece with that. Kleist’s original is very cruel. Like the ‘happy endings’ of Iphigenia at Aulis and Patient Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale,
the original ending is twisted and hideous. The whole thing revealed as
a strange and mysterious trick played on the Prince. But we know this
play after the horrors of the Third Reich and it seems just as
nightmarish, just as horrifying, but in a sense more logical - in an
inexorable and foul way - that the Prince die at the hands of the firing
It’s not at all clear to me why the
critics were at the throats of this production. Kelly’s been very
faithful to the original. He’s just changed the ending, but in doing so
has oddly not changed very much because we don’t take the Prince’s
rescue seriously. It seems like a sick joke. Instead he’s pursued the
play’s logic and that also seems like a sick joke. It’s nothing like
having Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after because the roots of
the ending are not deep in the play; the ending is a false ending. We’re
probably coming out of a period of false endings, where theatre is
continually ironic and narrative to be joked about. Dennis Kelly - like
Simon Stephens and Duncan Macmillan - is, if anything, drawn to moments
of sudden, gauche, naive articulacy and communication, set within worlds
of cruelty and moral collapse. They are typical in some ways of a new
cultural mode and the joke ending of Homburg would just have seemed outdated.
Do I think you can change anything? No. I suppose I thought that Katie Mitchell’s A Dream Play
crossed a line; not that I didn’t enjoy the production - I did - but
I’d have enjoyed it more if I had gone to see a devised show inspired by A Dream Play. I went wanting to see A Dream Play,
which I’ve never seen staged, and I was disappointed because I really
didn’t. The Restoration rewrites of Shakespeare seem stupid to us now
because they clumsily reveal the aesthetic and moral presumptions of the
age. Well, maybe this version also rests on clumsy contemporary
presumptions, but what show doesn’t? It’s our age and they are our
presumptions, and it seems absurd not to let the play be shaped by that
climate - especially since the change seems to me entirely within the
spirit of the play.
And anyway, the script’s still there. You can read it any time. And it’s not as if the play is completely unknown or unperformed. I saw Neil Bartlett’s version eight years ago and very good it was too (though much more austere and less in tune with the absurdist universe that this is). This is an excellent piece of reclamation that finds in The Prince of Homburg a play of genuine contemporary feeling.