Schiller’s Wallenstein at Chichester

Posted by RDN under On theatre on 30 May 2009

Mike Poulton’s latest excursion into adapting Friedrich Schiller provides my first into seeing any of the great German’s work. It was a lot more swashbuckling (schlossbuckling, one might say) than I expected.

In the Minerva – it is only physcially the smaller Chichester space – there arrives a military camp. It is soon populated by various generals, including the hero, Prince Albrecht Von Wallenstein, played by Iain Glen, who dominates them all in an easy, gruff, but also surprisingly sprightly, spry, even twitchy sort of way. We know straightaway that Schiller, Poulton and Glen intend us to understand that Wallenstein is wonderfully successful and masculine, but also devious, anxious, feeling and superstitious.

The plot is simple, by the way, considering we are halfway through the Thirty Years’ War, which no-one has ever understood for more than five minutes. It is the winter of 1633/4 and after a series of victories, Wallenstein has his devoted army around him, snowed-in. He has to decide between obeying his titular master, the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, or breaking his oath, teaming up with the armies of Saxony and Sweden, his enemies, and heading off to claim the kingdom of Bohemia for himself.

Events become complicated as swirling alliances, deceits and betrayals are heaped on each other. There are moments when one wonders if Wallenstein really was such a merchant of quandary. Things get a little Hamlety. But those moments are few and mostly it’s wonderful how the arguments and the action keep romping on.

There are theatrical weaknesses in the production. Max Irons is too fey and pouty to deliver us the crucial figure of Max Piccolimini, the son of one of Wallenstein’s generals and a surrogate son to Wallenstein. This matters because the young man – we’re told he’s an austere soldier – represents moral certainties which Wallenstein longs to hold but has abandoned because he has become hugely ambitious for himself and has in any case been so often betrayed.

The three women – Wallenstein’s conniving sister, his savvy and hyper-loyal wife, and his winsome daughter- add glamour and big frocks to the events. The sister (Charlotte Emmerson as Countess Terzky) especially, has some cracking moments and punches them home. The two older women carry a good deal of plot and argument as well bringing kingfisher flashes of colour to the scene.

It was really amazing to find such depth and strength in the “minor” characters: Mr Poulton gives almost everyone a moment in which to shine, and the actors grab them with both hands.

I imagine this to be a work of the Romantic wing of the German Enlightenment. So we are always looking out for the transformative hero who believes himself to be the conduit for cosmic and supernatural forces, both good and bad. Wallenstein delivers in spades. He trades in evil, but only – he says – because he must. He charts the stars because he feels himself so lofty that they speak to him as to no other mortals. He lords it over everyone, he feels, because he is in touch with colossal purposes.

This is a work full of lectures and ideas. But don’t worry, it is also to a surprising degree like watching a movie of Scarlet Pimpernel, or The Three Musketeers. The speechifying doesn’t overwhelm the derring-to.

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