Don Carlos at the Blue Elephant was a very special and beautiful piece of work. A simple set consisting of a blacked-out space with a bronze diamond painted centre stage, and a perpetual blanket of heavy, cloying mist, created a strong and sensuous setting. The play opened dramatically with a melancholy song as the full chorus of actors took their places on the stage, rapidly switching into a raucous flamenco with an abrupt stop to allow the first conversation to occur between Don Carlos (Douglas Rutter, who, in a certain light, reminds me of a young Ben Whishaw) and his confidante, Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa (David Palstrom). As the dramatic action takes place centre stage the focus is blurred slightly at the edges as the other members of the cast form a slow-moving chorus, with beautifully controlled choreography (from Ria Whitton) that allows them to subtly reflect the emotions within the scene as well as setting them up for the scene changes that are executed so swiftly but are so beautiful to watch. The movement in the piece really made it a luxurious viewing experience and added another dimension to the drama. The choreography was reminiscent of Pina Bausch (although what little I know of Pina Bausch is gleaned from the Wim Wenders documentary that came out earlier this year).
Context for the action was crated impressionistically: a brief and clipped BBC radio announcement that gives you the back story of conflict; and a heavily misted and lowlit torture scene creates the brooding, violent undertones of the Inquisition. Song was used sparingly to heighten pathos or add a ceremonial aspect to certain moments in the piece, creating a powerful and very well-executed additional platform for emotional engagement.
Committed performances from the actors and subtle direction complemented the choreography, music and lighting to create a harmonious performance, with wonderful attention to detail. The attempted seduction scene, where Princess Eboli (Alice Brown) has trapped Don Carlos in a nest of silken pillows, is sultry yet humorous as we watch Don Carlos’s pathetic attempt to writhe away, foiled by the slippery pillows as Princess Eboli easily manages to drag him back close to her. Again the choreography is spot on as the rest of the cast inhabit the low-lit edges of the stage, charging the atmosphere with their slow caresses. The scene of King Phillip’s wrath at the suspected adultery is also beautifully directed, with the King sat like a sulky child, half naked, in the centre of a map of his kingdom as he is surrounded on all corners by his advisors, standing soberly to witness his rage. My only minor criticism of the piece is that the map could have had nicer lettering, given that it was a major prop and there were so few used in the piece, but that really is nitpicking in what is otherwise an outstanding show.
A beautifully put together piece, with all aspects of the performance crafted to complement one another to create a lavish experience for the senses and a sharp insight into the story.
Don Carlos is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 26 November. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre website.