Don Carlos: A Cry for Freedom That Echoes Down the Ages

30 October 2018

Can we find contemporary meaning in a play written on the eve of the French Revolution and set two centuries earlier, when the fearful Spanish Inquisition ruled imperial Spain with a crucifix and an iron fist?

In the 200 years or so since Don Carlos was written, the world around us has changed. Yet as we bring the curtain up on this major new revival, the shadow of authoritarian rule appears to threaten hard-won democratic freedoms across Europe and the globe.

The idealistic Schiller infused his tale with courtly intrigue and revolutionary scheming, devising a plot that turns a dizzying kaleidoscope of shattered relationships. But Schiller's aim was not just to dazzle audiences; he also wanted to rouse their collective conscience. Through this grotesque vision of a dysfunctional family at the pinnacle of power, Schiller intended to send theatregoers away with a burning desire to create a more humane world.

Schiller shows the oppressive nature of the Spanish kingdom through the catastrophic impact it has on the people closest to King Philip II, who has sealed a peace deal by marrying his son’s fiancee. This betrayal, committed in the name of duty and empire, makes victims of everyone it touches. Carlos is heartbroken, the Queen struggles to adjust to her forced marriage and urges her former lover to direct his passion into politics, where the enigmatic Marquis of Posa is already hard at work.

Philip is no decisively cold-blooded Stalin or Hitler. He seems uneasy on his throne, a man of extreme contradictions: raging at his courtiers one moment, in tears the next; sensitive to Posa’s calls for freedom and humanity, yet ready to become a “monster of cold reason”. It is testament to Schiller’s skill that we maintain sympathy for Philip, a man who seems at times powerless to resist the machine of oppression.

Gadi Roll’s choice of this work at this moment reflects his belief that it contains deep political relevance to the world we inhabit in 2018. As the rise of populist right-wing movements around the globe provoke real fears that liberal democracies could be sleepwalking into dictatorship, the words of the German playwright are a timely reminder that the fight for freedom can be hard-fought and perhaps even eternal.

In Don Carlos, Schiller provides a chilling example of the indifference of tyranny to humanity and the awful consequences that can befall even the inner circle at the dark heart of power. But he also offers the hope that ideals such as freedom are worthy of the ultimate risk, and suggests that sometimes even what feels like crushing defeat might be a case of losing a battle to win the war.

Don Carlos runs at the Rose from 6 - 17 November. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

This piece is a condensed version of an article that appears in the Don Carlos programme, written by Phil Goodwin from Exeter Northcott Theatre. Programmes can be purchased for £4, either in advance or on the day.

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