It’s a brave move to let a bold aesthetic lead a production and Rosanna Vize’s design sets the tone for this gutsy interpretation of Don Carlos. The first offering from the newly formed Ara theatre company, founded by actor Tom Burke and director Gadi Roll, it is imbued with a sense of the epic.
The bones of Exeter Northcott Theatre are exposed, as Jonathan Samuels’ lighting grid and wheelable fixtures dominate. There is nowhere to hide in a space rendered part interrogation room, part sinister surveillance chamber, where black-clad courtiers in sunglasses watch your every indiscretion. It’s dark, imposing and throbs with a constant, threatening heartbeat.
The staging creates a fitting vision for Friedrich Schiller’s 18th-century classic, dealing with personal freedom and state persecution, here in a translation by Robert David MacDonald first staged in the mid 1990s.
Heir to the Spanish throne Don Carlos (Samuel Valentine) is gazumped in love by his own father (Darrell D’Silva). The king has married the prince’s love Elizabeth of Valois (Kelly Gough), leaving Carlos in the tricky position of trying to be a dutiful son by suppressing his requited thirst for his stepmum. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
Valentine’s Carlos is spirited, but the slightly absurdist, heavy artifice of the staging and performances weighs down this production. The language, dress and scenography are achingly modern, but Roll’s direction is distinctly odd in its stylised anti-naturalism.
Using Vize’s set like a chessboard, the power dynamics of the characters and the court are played out almost entirely on the horizontal in constant diametrical opposition. When not staring each other down in the manner of some dystopian western, the characters move across the stage’s squares in stiff grid-like patterns.
It’s a daring piece of visual dramaturgy, but one that only partially pays off. Gough’s Elizabeth is regal yet constrained, although her passion for Carlos is perhaps too well concealed. Initially Burke, best known for his roles in big BBC dramas including JK Rowling’s Strike, brings stoic gravitas to Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. He acts as the moral compass of the play, friend and champion of Carlos, seeking only a better future for the oppressed people of Flanders when all around with him are concerned with honour and self-preservation.
Why these compelling, if offbeat, performances are interspersed with histrionics is, however, a mystery. Three death/fainting collapses are so overdramatic and mistimed that they elicit audible sniggering from the audience. Burke’s goodly Marquis becomes more and more exaggerated to the point of pastiche, and his turn as The Grand Inquisitor is just downright weird. Creating this sense of alienation seems a directorial choice, but it makes for a very mixed, discordant production.