Timely Warning That Is Stamped with Greatness; FIRST NIGHT Don Carlos Gielgud Theatre Lonesome King: Derek Jacobi with Richard Coyle in Don Carlos

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Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH

THERE HAVE been few occasions in my theatregoing life when I have been more comprehensively thrilled, moved or excited.

Friedrich Schiller's classic tragedy of 16th-century Spain stirs a fatal brew of politics and sexual longing, libertarian urges and religious fanaticism. Michael Grandage's dark night of the soul production stirs these antagonistic elements to a fever-pitch of argument and betrayal. The high notes of emotion are not melodramatically engineered, but caused by the clash of opposing ideas. Mike Poulton's poetic new translation makes the conflict memorable. "They have contracted the same terrible disease: Humanity. And Humanity you know is very contagious," warns the King of Spain's Confessor, horrified by flickers of independent thought.

In Christopher Oram's bare, blackand-white design and Paule Constable's murky lighting scheme, the Spanish court resembles a prison menaced by religion and rigid decorum. The grille-like windows of the high-ceilinged room add to the claustrophobia. Ladies-in-waiting, as precise as clocks, flutter their fans with agitated hands. Cowled monks and obsequious courtiers scuttle around like disturbed beetles or cluster like impassive birds of prey.

The air reeks of liturgical chanting and incense. Occasional candles and an illuminated cross brighten the semidarkness when doors swing open. It is a world and a court where the Catholic religion and Inquisition imposes a reign of conformist terror.

You could call Don Carlos an early piece of magic realism, in which Schiller reinvents Spanish history.

Writing shortly before the French Revolution he wafts the Enlightenment figure of the young Marquis of Posa (charismatic Elliot Cowan) into 16th-century Spain. …