Bah Homburg

Theatre - Katherine Duncan-Jones on an overly poetic parody of the Romantic poet

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) could have been invented by a New Statesman competition winner as a parody of a Romantic poet. An emotionally fragile young man born into a Prussian military family, he first blew his mind by studying the philosophy of Kant, and finally shot himself in a suicide pact with a sick young woman. As a writer, he aspired to outstrip Goethe, no less, but after Goethe himself edited one of Kleist's plays for performance at the Weimar Theatre, Kleist launched a recklessly savage attack on the master, blaming him for the failure of the play. In its vacillation between excessive deference and crazy defiance, Kleist's relationship with Goethe resembles that of the callow Prince of Homburg to the Elector of Brandenburg.

The Prince of Homburg (1810) is not one of the plays performed in Kleist's lifetime. Its central theme of an unstable young nobleman who decides at a crucial moment to obey the promptings of his heart, rather than military orders, might have worked well as a short story - the genre in which Kleist wrote best - rather than a full-length play. There are passages of manifest padding, such as the melodramatic episode in Act 2 in which it is reported - mistakenly - that the Elector has been killed during the Prussians' victorious assault on the Swedes, and it then appears that he hasn't.

Although Neil Bartlett, the play's director and translator, calls Kleist's world "oddly modern", the play's two female roles are sentimental stereotypes. Lynn Farleigh, as the Electress, and Tanya Moodie, as her niece Princess Natalie, offer welcome animation in a generally rather stilted and frozen production, but the text does not give them much support. For instance, even though there are crude parallels to Hamlet's tormented relationship with Ophelia, Natalie has no opportunity to respond to the Prince's willingness, even gratuitous eagerness, to reject her if that will save him from the firing squad. Only seconds after he has declared that all his feeling for Natalie "is quite extinguished" she addresses him as "hero".

In order to engage with the play, we need to have a sense of why both Natalie and most of the officers continue to be loyal to the Prince despite his deep self-absorption and tiresome mood swings, yet neither Kleist's text nor Dan Fredenburgh's performance enables us to do so. He is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. Perhaps an actor who was willing to attempt some Hamlet-like touches of self-parody or humour might have won the audience's support; this one seems just a whingeing bore.

This both is, and is not, an Royal Shakespeare Company production. Although the RSC's Swan Theatre is the venue for the Stratford run, The Prince will play for longer at the Lyric Hammersmith, and is essentially a Lyric production. This may account for the unadventurously flat employment of the Swan's space, with no use of the upper galleries. A few of the best performers, most notably James Laurenson as the Elector and Fred Pearson as Colonel Kottwitz, are RSC troupers. But even they cannot lift the text effectively, for this, in turn, both is and is not a verse translation. I was struck by how badly spoken the play was throughout, clumsily emphasised, wrongly pronounced, monotonous in intonation. One does not expect that in an "RSC" production, however obscure the text. But, reading through Bartlett's version, I have come to the conclusion that many of its speeches are unperformable. Noel Clark's 1997 translation is written in proper blank verse and is unashamedly poetic. I suspect that it would play rather well. This version, and production, are a mawkish mishmash.

The Prince of Homburg is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403 403), until 16 February, and then at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (020 8741 2311), from 22 February until 30 March