What the Royal Shakespeare Company has done to Schiller’s Don Carlos (1787) is worse than deconstruction: wanton destruction. Let’s start with one example of Robert David Macdonald’s flatfooted translation. Schiller’s Queen Elizabeth says of the rustic Aranjuez surroundings: “Hier grüsst mich meine ländliche Natur, / Die Busenfreundin meiner jungen Jahre,” which I approximate with: “Here I am greeted by my country nature, / The boon companion of my younger years.” MacDonald contrives: “What I find here is nature still unspoilt. / The way it was when I was still a child” – prosaic and platitudinous, with total loss of Schiller’s imagery.
Next, the admittedly long play was cut to shreds, though given this mounting, it is still overlong. Gale Edwards, the Australian director and current London hotshot, further prosified the production with inapt modern dress by Sue Wilmington, stale décor by Peter J. Davison, and gross music by Gary Yershon. The drama is about the repressively totalitarian, Catholic values of 1568 Spain clashing with the liberal-humanitarian ideals of Prince Carlos and his gallant friend the Marquis of Posa. It requires the austere costumes and forbidding backgrounds against which freedom – political, moral, sexual – rebels. In silly modern dress, nothing makes sense.
Further, Edwards has Carlos (Rupert Penry-Jones) epigonously aping early Brando-James Dean acting, hurling himself about like a boomerang, howling like an aborigine in the outback, grabbing people unceremoniously by the neck, or dispensing loutishly chummy kisses. The others perform just as problematically and are, confusingly, in many cases black. This bespeaks a progressive, enlightened court, hardly stifling and revolt-inducing. The crazed, druggy Carlos would not have been handed over to the Inquisition, merely sent to rehab, and not plotted against by a Princess Eboli played as a Spice Girl formerly known as Princess. I felt sorry only for John Woodvine as King Philip, a solid actor vulgarly misdirected by Miss Edwards, who similarly mucked up the current Jesus Christ Superstar. She should be sent back to Australia to train kangaroos to jump through hoops.