Review – Luise Miller – Donmar Warehouse

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It’s hard to figure out how to write a one hundred percent spoiler free review for Luise Miller – the play is hardly a classic (despite being 250 years old) so almost anything I write is going to be a plot reveal (for those unfamiliar with Verdi’s version). I went into this play knowing absolutely nothing about it (other than a quick giveaway about it being 18th century and German). This is, actualy, how I like to experience my plays – totally at the mercy of the playwright and whatever ride he’s going to take me on, trying to see where his hints are (“This will all end in tragedy!” usually seems a pretty solid clue), trying to outguess his twists and turns via leaps of logic (“but if he’s in love with her, too, then he will probably ….”). This is much more of a hair-raising, visceral experience, and while I know there is much to be said for seeing a show you know inside and out so you can truly judge, say, the superiority of a performance or adequacy of a given translation, I say there’s nothing that beats getting that first night’s audience experience. This is one of the reasons I avoid reading most reviews before I go see a show: I really just don’t want to know the details, I just want to know if I should or shouldn’t go! And for those of you who want that kind of review from me, I think I can tell you just enough by saying the production reminds me of The Revenger’s Tragedy meets Sorrows of Young Werther via Dangerous Liaisons, that it’s a solid, middle of the road show that is not outstanding but still entertaining, and that it’s the plot that holds the show back from greatness as I cannot really buy into a show so driven by small-town, 18th century ethics for this play any more than I could for Faust. This is the end of the spoiler-free section of this review; if you were wanting to make up your mind based on the lightest touch of information needed to do so, you now have what you need. Scurry off as I am now about to get down to the meat of the review, and I shall be telling much more than I would have wanted to have heard before I went.

Alright, is this the rest of you, the ones who don’t mind knowing more about a show before you go? Or are you perhaps among those who sat through this tragedy of comic proportions and wanted to see if your experiences matched my own? Well, read on …

Luise Miller is about a young man of noble birth (Ferdinand, Max Bennett) in love with a young woman of low birth (Luise Miller, Felicity Jones) whom he meets while taking violin lessons from her father. The play starts with thick tragedy warnings from the start, made even more alarming once young Ferdinand appears on stage, in his officer’s uniform, with innocent, virtuous, highly religious Luise and promptly appears to be telling her every line of bull in the book about how he absolutely will find a way to make their relationship work. He was laying it on so thick I was expecting Luise to promptly dance herself to death and be brought back by the Queen of the Wilis. Three characters stand in their way: his father (The Chancellor, Ben Daniels), the neighbor in love with Luise (Wurm, appropriately enough, John Light), and the king’s mistress (Lady Milford, Alex Kingston), who wants to marry Ferdinand herself. Leaving still a bit of room for surprise, I’ll say the plot does have a few twists and turns, but ends in keeping with the early expectations, with an overblown, overacted death scene that hit all the buttons if you’re feeling spiteful about all of the sap on stage.

I had some serious problems with the script for this play. A huge gap exists between the people in the world of the court (the Chancellor, Lady Milford) and the world of Luise. On Luise’s side, religion and morality are of utmost importance; at the court, it’s power and getting what you want. And, unexpectedly, it’s the manipulative court people who actually are more interesting. I’m sure Schiller meant our sympathies to be with Luise and Ferdinand, and while I felt sorry for the way their beliefs and sense of honor were used to manipulate them, it didn’t change the fact that they came off as two dimensional. This was especially bad in the case of Bennett, who, as Ferdinand, had a wide range of emotions to cover – passion, happiness, rage, jealousy – and didn’t really seem up to the task (though he did have passion-inspiring shoulders). I wondered if it was just too far removed from his personal experience for him to “get” what he was acting. As for Jones, well, she was sweet, but in her confrontation with Lady Milford she moves beyond sugary into insightful and empathetic – giving Jones more chance to show dramatic range and winning me over as a character and an actress. Sadly, both of the young’uns were weak when they were meant to be crazy … but this was during the point when the religiosity was being cranked up to my breaking point anyway so I was checking out a bit and waiting for the God talk to be over. I’m sure, though, Schiller did NOT mean for me to be humorously indifferent to Luise and Ferdinand’s suffering …. but they did both really need to do some growing up.

Overall, this play was kind of typical of the gloom and doom style I’ve come to associate with the Donmar, but without the really brilliant script to make it all amazing. Still, I walked into the night feeling a sense of joy at having seen the destruction I’d anticipated all night wreaked so thoroughly at the end, and, given that it was just past 10PM as I headed out the door, it seemed like it had been a good evening, but one that definitely called for a bit of ice cream, so off to Scoop I went for a little bit of sweet and cold to end my evening perfectly satisfied.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, June 10th, 2011. Luise Miller continues through July 30th.)

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One Response to “Review – Luise Miller – Donmar Warehouse”

  1. A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Review – Luise Miller – Donmar Warehouse534 […]

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