I wanted to visit Kingston’s Rose Theatre since their collaboration with paper artist Su Blackwell but missed the show when jet-lag won. When Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos was announced in May, I got tickets immediately – after all, this tragedy was a big part of my college exams and I must have read it several times.
Don Carlos is set in the palace of King Philip II. While in England Elizabeth I defined her era (and did not accept Philip’s marriage proposal), Philip II ruled from Spain over the then biggest empire on earth. For this Kingston Theatre has been transformed into an unforgiving Big Brother state of constant interrogation and proves how timeless Schiller is. There is little stimulation on stage: The characters all wear black, only the occasional tie or lining allows subtle colour. I wonder if the exceptional cast has also been chosen by their distinguishing hair shades – thinking that the Queen of French origin might wear a very dark blue feels almost daring. The props are limited to spotlights and sparse pieces of furniture and when a red carpet is being rolled out it is as if a boundary wall is drawn.
Imagine that in this totalitarian household of the highest crown, your father has snatched your fiancée and married her himself (the historic event happened in 1559), never clarified if this happened for political reason or out of meanness. Your love is now your mother and as a queen unreachable. You cannot trust anyone enough to share your pain with and neither escape it. The church, focussing on the terror of the inquisition, is no comfort either. Months of heartbrokenness and loneliness pass in a place where you are always under the eye of someone.
The sudden arrival of a friend from youth years is balm for your soul and this is what Don Carlos, heir of the Spanish crown, feels when his old friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, arrives at court. But the Marquis has been out in the world, seen how wonderful and at the same time suppressed it is and now a cosmopolitan he wants to assure that the prince will follow the humanitarian goals they conceived together in earlier years. The helplessness of the Carlos he visits almost bores the Marquis and he is looking for a more pragmatic way to bring his noble ideals forward. And why not directly to the tyrant king if he has the chance? But this freedom-hating place is no forum for humanistic ideas; everyone is under constant interrogation and hence a witness all the time, always under the suspicion of disloyalty.
The role of the Marquis is one of the most popular among German actors – his statements on brotherhood, equality, freedom are famous quotes and his initial dialogue with the king a key scene in German theatre. He is also one of the few fictitious characters. Tom Burke plays him well but the rest of the cast assure there are no minor characters. Don Carlos is by no means a short play and this dramatization does well by keeping it under three hours.
Heaven knows why you’d bring an 8-year-old to this play, especially when ill and in the need of swallowing constantly lozenges and water – we ask in the interval to switch our seats from the pit (which are luckily not the ones on the floor) and sit on the balcony where we have a far better view anyway.
Schiller’s Don Carlos premiered in Hamburg in 1787. Later that year Schiller became a professor for history and in France the Bastille was conquered. In 1792 the French people made Schiller an honorary citizen but Schiller despised the violence which had come with their uprising – already in Don Carlos he claimed that freedom from despots has no value if it is not also freedom of the individual. He was a stipendiary of aristocracy himself – joining the military in German lands split in over 300 microstates had been the only way to study first law, then medicine. Later he became a professor for history and a front runner for the German Sturm und Drang movement and a founder of the Weimar classicism in the philosophical Age of Reason.
Rereading Schiller’s lyrics of the Ode to Joy from 1785 (which Beethoven used for his Ninth Symphony when completing it 39 years later) feels like a summary of Don Carlos. In 1972 it was adopted as the Anthem of Europe.