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Don Carlos at Exeter Northcott

Exeter Northcott, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Rose Theatre Kingston co-production in association with ARA.

Review by Paul Nero


“Shoot me now” Tom Burke with Prince Harry


Oh dear. They’ve been building up to this show at the Northcott for a year. Splattering posters of star Tom Burke on any spare surface. Talking it up. Shouting it up indeed. Shouty is something this production would do well, if it didn’t do it so badly. Something’s rotten in the state of Spain.


For those of us who believed the hype – for hype is what it turned out to be - Don Carlos is less of a disappointment and, like the Spanish Inquisition which is its setting, more an agony to be endured. 


Burke has much riding on this. Along with director Gadi Roll, it is his production company’s first piece, produced by the Northcott’s outgoing artistic director Paul Jepson. The actor’s mother is reportedly in the audience. We’re itching to be awed with high quality drama. We’re on their side. We’re let down.


The Friedrich Schiller play should have resonance today: exploring power in its rawest forms, exploitation, terror, fundamentalism, European alliances. Schiller could have done with a good editor, but the German wrote his Spanish play two years before the French revolution and probably had few people around to say ‘you need to take an hour out of this, Fred’. The Northcott’s co-production with Burke’s company uses a respected 1995 Scottish translation, which itself could be trimmed, yet the producers contrive to make this an implausible test of nearly three and a half hours. You can get an A Level in Don Carlos faster. Twenty minutes could be trimmed by not moving stage lighting and chairs round unnecessarily every few minutes, with the added benefit that actors could get on and off unencumbered by trip hazards.


An hour in and this feels like minor counties cricket; you know you’re in for a long, dreary day, perhaps with the occasional flash of quality, but the highlight will surely be the tea break. The interval is such a relief for some members of the audience, they choose not to return (fortunately Tom Burke’s mother does, which shows loyalty for you).


Performers’ voices have a range extending from mildly shouty to excruciatingly shouty; the females on a register so high we worry for the hearing of nearby dogs; the males generating a level of spittle that would concern the front few rows were the actors ever to turn face-front, rather than conduct most of the action, if action it can be called, on a left-to-right plane and, for a variety’s sake, towards the back wall. It’s a considerable achievement to shout so much and be heard so little.


A Prince Harry lookalike (Samuel Valentine) who’s in love with a stepmother who could pass for his sister (Kelly Gough), makes his father King Phillip II (Darrell D’Silva) understandably cross, so is counselled by the Marquis of Posa (Tom Burke). That’s a pretty strong start, but where there should be drama, there’s only poetry, and we can’t hear much of that through the shouting. Pauses out-Pinter Pinter to the point one wonders if the actors are going to shout for their line. Presumably these are dramatic pauses, without the drama. After Burke is shot and performs a stage-death so reminiscent of Eric Morecombe in a Little Ern play that it causes audible guffaws, he springs back to life as the Grand Inquisitor. Sunglasses. Jerky head. Staccato delivery. This is Suggs from Madness in his seminal work Baggy Trousers, words possibly changed around a bit, but who would know?


So here’s the play, overhyped, under-delivered (unless you count the length), with little to shout about. Let’s move on.


The Northcott is entering a new era. Artistic director Daniel Buckroyd takes over with news ideas. The tragedy of Don Carlos isn’t his fault.


Don Carlos is at the Exeter Northcott until 20 October and then tours to the Nuffield Southampton and Rose Theatre, Kingston

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