The fish rots from the head down in the Volkstheater’s compelling Don Karlos.

With enlightenment-era ideals under fire, it seems timely to remind ourselves of the hypocrisy of power. Fortunately, the Volkstheater gives an insightful lesson in its new take on Don Karlos, Schiller’s enlightenment-era exploration of idealism, power and personal fortunes set in the Renaissance-era court of King Philip II of Spain. With plenty of courtly intrigue and good old-fashioned backstabbing, there are few better ways to offer modern-day audiences food for thought.

Directed by political-theater devotee Barbara Wysocka in her Vienna debut, the loosely historical story based on the Netherlands’ 80-year struggle for independence is told bearing Wysocka’s signature style on a revolving stage with photos of the characters and documentary footage of raging (presumably Dutch) masses projected onto the set. As the audience found their seats, the titular character was already on stage, frantically writing and tearing up letter drafts; what followed was a straightforward yet elegant rendition with modern costumes and telephones, highlighting key themes like the generational conflict and the triumph of politics over the personal through dialogue and dynamics.

The plot sees the Spanish court of King Philip II divided on how to react to civil unrest in the Dutch provinces, with the hot-blooded Infante Don Karlos (Lukas Watzl) and his childhood friend, the Marquis of Posa (Sebastian Klein), sympathetic to the rebels but the more conservative inner circle, like the Duke of Alba and Domingo, the king’s confessor, more inclined to put them to the sword.

Torn between his unrequited love for his stepmother, Queen Elizabeth of Valois (Evi Kehrstephan), and his desire to help the Dutch, Karlos pushes his disdain for his tyrannical father aside and requests governorship of the Netherlands, but the king (Günter Franzmeier) brushes him off, thinking him too soft and naïve. In the resulting power struggle, intrigues are spun and allegiances shift as stolen letters, false friendships and spurned lovers see Alba, Posa and Karlos fall in and out of favor, with Karlos’ advances on the queen proving a dangerous secret.

From the conniving Domingo and Alba to the idealistic Marquis of Posa to the queen, who was originally engaged to Karlos, everyone is caught in the intersection of passion and politics.

SPAIN IN VAIN

Despite Schiller’s challenging prose, the ensemble managed a natural, flowing delivery, allowing the stage to dissolve as the duplicitous court jockeyed for favor.

Princess Eboli (Isabella Knöll), Elizabeth and Karlos tended to overemote while Domingo and Duke Alba (Stefan Suske and Steffi Krautz) went about their machinations with purpose and dignity. Sebastian Klein crafted a sensitive portrayal of Posa as a plain-spoken subversive with the calmly intense certainty of a true believer. However, Franzmeier’s King Philip II was a cut above the rest, dominating with his vast expressive range and turning from cold-hearted to emotional and forgiving and back to cruel on a dime; an avatar of arbitrary state power in a double-breasted suit.

As a whole, the cast succeeded in immersing the audience over the three-hour runtime, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats, despite the elaborate plot. The thrilling last-minute appearance of the grand inquisitor (Florentin Groll) to demand the head of Don Karlos nearly stole the show: Slow and deliberate like a force of nature, his gray authority filled the theater, his lines few but powerful: “Better decay than liberty.” A striking demonstration that even kings must bow to the system, no matter how reactionary and nonsensical. Before the audience had a chance to process this poignant message, the lights shifted from the stage to the audience, uncomfortably blinding everyone with this finale of injustice and oppression.

The divine right of kings may be a thing of the past, but people are still people; and Wysocka masterfully portrayed them with all their flaws in the thrall of events beyond their control. The Volkstheater filled with roaring applause; and rightly so.