The Danton Case

Marcin Czarnik in The Danton Case as part of the 2010 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo by Bartosz Maz

Marcin Czarnik in The Danton Case as part of the 2010 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo by Bartosz Maz

Marat is dead in his bathtub. In case we're not sure that it's Marat, two men decked out in black frock coats and silver wigs are comparing the spectacle against print outs of the Jacques-Louis David painting. Yes, it's definitely him, and he's definitely dead. This is not a good sign. The Revolution is threatened; factions are forming and rumours of treason are about. To save the Revolution, Robespierre must destroy it – even if this means giving Danton, his former ally turned arch-rival, the literal chop. Robespierre doesn't take much convincing; Danton is not yet concerned. The Reign of Terror has begun.

There are no plot spoilers here – we already know who gets it, and in what order – but any review will inevitably steal from the surprise of this production. It starts with the space: the Project Upstairs is transformed. It has become a cardboard city of dirt floors, beaten garage doors, platforms, soap-boxes (and the bathtub). Into this post-revolutionary landscape pump lights, rock and pop anthems, and action. The boxes are used variously as shields, hiding places, plinths from which to declaim, and as screens employed to hilarious effect to protect modesty during sex scenes. The actors stand up on the platform in front of you and look you directly in the eye. It all combines into an exciting theatrical experience, and it makes one wonder why any theatre has permanent seating and a fixed stage at all.

The Revolution is on stage here in Eleonore, a grotesque parody of Marianne, spirit of the French Revolution, grimacing under her bonnet rouge, raising her drum sticks to make horns out of Robespierre. Dressed all in red, like some monstrous pioneer youth, she is the bad conscience of the Revolution, and impossible to escape. The production is full with such symbols and signifiers: some we get immediately – subtlety is not the goal here (chocolates branded ‘Merci’, songs which are literally talking ‘bout a revolution); the resonance of others kick in later (“ahhh, the National Razor”); and others we won't even pretend to understand. (The plucked chicken comes to mind.) Yet, even if the meaning of every detail is not clear to all, we can be sure that every single thing on stage is there for a reason. The rigour in theatrical practice from that side of Europe demands it; nothing exists for aesthetic reasons alone.

The same rigour applies to the performances, which are intense, energetic, and disciplined. Both Marcin Czarnik and Wiesław Cichy, as Robespierre and Danton respectively, make for charismatic orators, even if Robespierre needs a chainsaw in hand before he really gains confidence. Desmoulins (Bartosz Porczyk), the writer, in whom we might have a critique of the role the arts play in all this – neurotic, deeply vain, and demanding of attention and acclaim – also deserves special mention. However, the whole ensemble of three women and twelve men works superbly together, both convincing in character and sure in every physical movement – encapsulated in a terrifically witty scene between Robespierre, Desmoulins, his wife Lucille, and two boxes. From the perfect timing of renditions of pop classics to the smaller details (a boot taps stage left, like a clock ticking or a tap dripping, as Robespierre thinks, pink rose in hand), The Danton Case is a show that is firing on all cylinders - yet everything is used in moderation, nothing is overdone.

Nevertheless, at 160 minutes without pause, it is tough-going at times. The dialogue is so fast and furious that it is difficult to keep up with the surtitles (and sometimes difficult for the surtitles to keep up) with the result that it becomes hard to follow who is saying what. This is frustrating because it matters, certainly if we want to follow the conspiracies and the treacheries, and fully understand the nuanced differences between the two Great Men of the Revolution.

Written in 1929 by Stanisława Przybyszewska, a woman reputedly addicted to both morphine and Robespierre (not necessarily connected), at a time when Poland was dealing with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, The Danton Case is better known through Andrzej Wajda's 1983 film, Danton, which resounded with contemporary relevance to Lech Wałęsa's Solidarity movement. In Jan Klata's 2008 version, we have perhaps moved beyond working out who might represent who: it is the idea of revolution itself which comes under fire.

For Klata's Danton Case is surely borne out of the disappointment that followed the euphoria of 1989 – a disillusionment widely felt in former Eastern-bloc countries. As the guillotine slips through the air at the end, and everything falls into dystopic chaos and despair, we understand that every revolution inevitably dies at the point that retaining power becomes more important than anything, whether it’s ‘principles’ or the will of the people (or mob) you purport to represent. Revolution ‘Number 9’ loops around again, and again, and again.

This is the best of so-called anarchic theatre because it does not lose sight of meaning and relevance, nor hide behind some misplaced idea that opacity equals depth. The Danton Case is powerful, relevant and a thrilling theatrical ride – and yes, perfectly executed.


Fíona Ní Chinnéide is the Reviews Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine. 


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The Danton Case by Stanisława Przybyszewska in a version by Jan Klata

13-16 Oct, 2010

Produced by Polski Teatr Wroclaw
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Jan Klata
Dramaturgy: Sebastian Majewski
Set Design: Mirek Kaczmarek
Choreography: Macko Prusak
Lighting Design: Justyna Łagowska
With: Kinga Preis, Anna Ilczuk, Katarzyna Straczek, Marcin Czarnik, Wiesław Cichy, Tomasz Lulek, Bartosz Porczyk, Andrzej Wilk, Marian Czerski, Edwin Petrykat, Zdzisław Kuzniar, Mirosław Haniszewski, Rafał Kronenberger, Michał Opalinski, Michał Mrozek.