The Prince of Homburg
Reviewed – 12th December 2019
“The Space is an always welcoming venue which has a reputation for programming important drama. This production of The Prince of Homburg is no exception”
Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg, written around 1810, is a play shot through with ambiguity and altered states. It was also seen, at the time of its creation, as a direct challenge to the authority of the ruling classes. Now recognized as one of the masterpieces of German theatre, the play is rarely seen on British stages, and not just because of the difficulty of rendering this work into English. Neil Bartlett’s translation, however, does a fine job of capturing Kleist’s unique energy of expression and style. So what The Prince of Homburg is actually about? In many ways, the play is essentially unknowable. But on the face of it, it is a story about a soldier whose response, after being tricked into a waking dream where he is crowned with a wreath of victory, is to promptly go into battle, disobey his orders, and—win a great victory for his side.
After the battle (often the end of the story in a more conventional play) is where this drama really begins. Kleist sets the audience an intriguing puzzle: since the Prince did not know whether he was awake or dreaming when he was crowned with the victor’s wreath, can he be held responsible for disobeying orders to achieve the dream? Is his commanding officer, the Elector, really to blame, since it was he who set up the whole scene for his own amusement? This enlightened despot disingenuously argues that he must follow the law when the courts sentence Homburg to death, but then the officers in his army rebel. When the Princess Natalie, who has fallen in love with Homburg, makes an impassioned plea for her lover’s life—it is not her emotions that carry weight with the Elector, but her cleverly nuanced argument that he will look bad if he allows a man of honour to be executed for following his heart. At this point the Elector caves of course, but sets up a poison pill for Homburg. The Prince must now decide whether to make the expedient argument to save his life, or do what a man of honour would do, which is to sacrifice himself willingly for his country.
Kleist pulls off a remarkable sleight of hand with this material, managing all these reversals of fortune in a way that undercuts expectations, while paradoxically heightening the audience’s experience through the dramatization of highly ambiguous dream states. In these states, the characters confront all the big stuff like life and love; death and immortality. Coupled with crafting a language uniquely suited to these dramatic innovations, Kleist engages the our imaginations, and our sense of what is possible in the theatre. The Prince of Homburg is like Hamlet in this regard, in that the more we engage with it, the greater it becomes.
Júlia Leval, freely adapting and directing this production of The Prince of Homburg, has come up with some innovative ideas for casting and staging. The Prince is played by Lucy Mackay, a fine actress, but lacking the experience for such a difficult role. Most of the cast (recently graduated from LAMDA) also seems rather adrift in the stormy waters of Kleist’s rhetoric, though Will Bishop is a confident Elector. A pared down set designed by Zoe Brennan has some beautifully ironic touches—a small bush for the laurel tree that Homburg uses to build the wreath for example, and a small white house that stands in for palaces and churches as well as a throne. Alistair Lax’s sound design helps to heighten the dream sequences.
Don’t miss your chance to see this seldom performed masterpiece. It’s worth making the journey to The Isle of Dogs to see it, and The Space is an always welcoming venue which has a reputation for programming important drama. This production of The Prince of Homburg is no exception.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
The Prince of Homburg
The Space until 14th December
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: