Minerva Studio, Chichester (x2) / Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 29–30 July, 2008
*** / *** / **

One day Ronald Harwood may once again write a script that is not centred on an individual’s relationship with Nazism. Harwood, best known now as the screenwriter of The Pianist, premièred a play about British Nazi sympathiser John Amery earlier this year, and now Chichester has twinned a revival of his 1995 play about the de-Nazification interrogations of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Taking Sides, with a new companion piece about composer Richard Strauss and his sometime librettist Stefan Zweig, Collaboration.
One of the spurious, desperate “evidences” of Nazi commitment flung by his monomaniac American interrogator is that German state radio followed the announcement of Hitler’s death with Furtwängler’s recording of a Brückner symphony. We are implicitly directed to consider the absurdity of this as amounting to an ideological endorsement by the conductor, but we recognise how emotionally manipulative the music is. Harwood’s writing is similarly transparent: Michael Pennington may play Furtwängler as formal and reserved to the point of coldness, but we are in no doubt that, however naïve his beliefs about the separation of art and politics might be, we are on his side rather than that of David Horovitch as the proto-McCarthy determined to condemn him. The same contrast is used in Collaboration, though this time it is Horovitch’s Zweig who is naturally reserved but a man of explicit principle in contrast with Pennington’s Strauss, far more garrulous but also unable to resist being drawn further and further into exploitation by the Nazi regime.
It is a paradox that the plays are intelligent (and Philip Franks’ productions are characteristcally considered) yet not particularly deep. The implied question – what would you do, and when? – is one that strikes keenly, but not necessarily one we could answer honestly from our safe distance. Would we, like Strauss, acquiesce in the face of threats against our family? Like Furtwängler, continue to believe in the sanctity of our art? Follow Zweig into exile and suicide? In the last lines of that play, Strauss makes what is clearly a specious self-justification but is none the less an arresting idea: that in one way Zweig was the real collaborator because, by taking his own life, he achieved what the Nazis wanted – a world deprived of him. Both plays cause us to think and feel to a great extent, but not in any new directions. Taking Sides, in particular, ends on a note (literally) of sentimental affirmation which cannot rival the same moment in István Szabó’s film version, when a few seconds of archive film footage eloquently sum up the complexities and ambiguities of the entire issue.
In Chichester’s main house, meanwhile, Jonathan Church’s canny programming balances Harwood’s more pensive dramas with a slice of old-fashioned Englishness. A colleague claims that once, when the lights rose on a Chichester stage set, he heard a punter exclaim, “Oh, goody, a chaise longue!” A matching pair, in fact, in Simon Higlett’s set for The Circle. This country-house play may have been Somerset Maugham’s brittle best in 1921, but it has not aged at all well. Arnold and Elizabeth Champion-Cheney find themselves playing host both to Arnold’s father and, on their first return in 30 years, his mother who ran off with his father’s best friend; at the same time, Elizabeth is on the brink of a similar flight with a handsome planter from the Malay States. Questions of love, happiness, independence, decency, are all drowned in a torrent of clipped accents (and, in the case of Susan Hampshire’s Lady Kitty, a clipped gait – she walks like a geisha marchioness). It is moderately amusing in a post-Wildean way when it intends to be, but often downright hilarious when it doesn’t.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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