Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin
Opened 14 April, 2011

How do you persuade a German audience to laugh at the Nazis? A couple of years ago, the Berlin opening of the musical of Mel Brooks’ The Producers opted for making its absurdities so extreme that they were impossible to take seriously. That is in part also the strategy of this stage adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be Or Not To Be, itself remade by Brooks and the source of The Producers’ “Heil myself” gag. Far more often, however, Milan Peschel’s production, which arrives at the Gorki after opening at co-producer the Narodowy Stary Teatr in Krakow, takes the opposite tack: it tries to license moments of humour by including great wedges of earnestness. I do not know how much of this material is included in Nick Whitby’s original English-language script (which ran for only a month after its Broadway première in 2008), but I suspect not much.

Lubitsch’s film is itself problematic in tone: 1942 was not the best time to essay a comedy about a theatre troupe in occupied Warsaw, who have to impersonate Nazi officers, spies and even Hitler himself in order to thwart moves against the Polish resistance. To give credit to Peschel and Whitby, they do not shirk this uneasiness: the most widespread audience response at the performance I saw was a murmur of uncertainty at a Nazi officer’s remark about the leading man’s performance as Hamlet, “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland.” But concentrating on the comedy itself would have been far the braver course than, as here, inserting long, sombre utterances, a gratuitous dance sequence or two and mystifying musical excerpts including Ennio Morricone and Eric Burdon.

Peschel’s staging and Magdalena Musial’s design go all-out for metatheatricality: stagehands erect flats around actors, scenes are played in weird stage geometries, players don and doff costumes not simply according to their roles. Yet paradoxically, instead of underlining Lubitsch’s view that this is a story about actors being actors until the bitter end, it devalues comedy and seriousness alike. Most misjudged of all, having dragged the story out to twice its screen running time, the production then cuts the impersonation of Hitler that provides both a comic climax and a serious payoff to the show’s opening gag. It is like Hamlet without the prince. Instead it ends with the company repeatedly intoning, “What are we going to do now?” like a bunch of glum Spike Milligans. They should remember the old saw: dying is easy – comedy is hard.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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