Toby Stephens stars as Georges Danton
On one side, you have Robespierre, "the Incorruptible". He's repressed, lacking self esteem, always on the go, and horribly virtuous. "Vice must be punished," he believes. And "virtue must rule through terror."
On the other, there's the sexy Georges Danton, always in and out of brothels, always ready with a joke and a glass of wine. But when it comes to the current state of the revolution, Danton's strangely passive. He's charismatic, and the people love him, but he's haunted by his part in the September 1792 massacres, and seems fixated with death.
In this interval-free two-hour version of Georg Büchner's political masterpiece, it's the conflict between these two characters that forms the central column around which the rest of the play is built.
Elliot Levey's Robespierre is vain, pompous and wields power like someone afraid of losing it. You get the feeling he was bullied at school. Indeed, one of his former friends, now in prison at Robespierre's request, mentions how they sat together in class and no one really spoke to Robespierre. When a man like that's in charge of the guillotine, no wonder heads are rolling.
As Danton, Toby Stephens manages to deliver a mix of off-putting arrogance in front of a crowd; pitiful guilt and remorse when he's with his wife; frustrating jocularity about death in front of his mates; and a winning streak of honest ordinary humanity in soliloquy. It's an impressive performance.
Aside from these two central characters, as you might expect from a play about the French Revolution, there's a lot of standing about and shouting in courts, conventions and chambers. It's a wordy piece. But the Olivier stage is used to nice effect with long, ominous windows reaching up into the sky, and a balcony just perfect for proclaiming rules of terror from. The guillotining at the end (we're not giving anything away - it's in the title!) will have you wondering "how did they do that?"
We left thinking about the play's resonances today: the dangers of radicalism, splits in coalitions, wars on terror, people achieving celeb status, then wishing they could somehow switch fame off. And the arching timelessness of it too: fear of dying and death, and the "terrible fatalism of history," as Büchner says.
Or, as Danton puts it, the fact that "history has a way of biting you on the arse."
Danton's Death is booking at the National Theatre until 14 October. It's part of the Travelex £10 season, so you can get tickets for a tenner. Call 0207 452 3000 for tickets, or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk for more info.