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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Michael Pennington/Ph: Manuel Harlan

Two plays, two giants of German culture, two reputations. Ronald Harwood's offerings, both directed by Philip Franks and first paired at Chichester, each ask whether it can ever be right for great artists to produce great art while living under tyrannical regimes.

In Taking Sides, first seen in 1995, it is conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler's choice to stay in Hitler's Germany that is examined. In Collaboration, Harwood's latest play, it is composer Richard Strauss's decision to carry on working under and, in the eyes of his accusers, for Hitler, that comes under the spotlight.

But anyone coming to these meaty, cross-cast plays with preconceived notions about the reputations of Furtwangler and Strauss (both powerfully played by Michael Pennington ) as antisemitic cheerleaders of the Nazi regime, is going to have those notions strongly challenged - albeit more compellingly in Harwood's earlier play than his latest.

Set in 1946 Taking Sides  takes place in the Berlin office of David Horovitch's  crude American Major Arnold whose job is to root out Nazis and find out why Furtwnagler never left the country after Hitler came to power.

Haunted by memories of the camps, Arnold treats the investigation like a personal vendetta. His case is built upon the respect with which Furtwangler  was held by Hitler and his henchmen. No matter how many Jewish musicians the conductor claims to have saved, he was still, accuses Arnold, a Nazi advertising slogan that proclaimed, "This is what we produce. The greatest conductor in the world".

Harwood has a good deal of fun pitting Horovitch's crude philistine against Pennington's imperious aesthete - then asking, who is the civilized one? Is it the Major - an uncultured, erstwhile insurance claims assessor - or is it the great conductor, a man for whom the preservation of culture was more important than human life.

Collaboration, meanwhile is the slower burn of the two. Strauss's reputation is persuasively reassessed in the light of his Jewish grandchildren, and in particular his relationship with his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig (Horovitch again) who, by eventually killing himself in a suicide pact with his wife in, of all places, Brazil, collaborated more fully with the Nazi's than Strauss ever did. That, at least is the case that Strauss puts to his inquisitors at a post-war denazification board.

Supported by Isla Blair's Isla Blair formidable frau Pauline, he asks "What would you have done in my shoes". It's a question which Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Harwood, whose best-known work The Dresser  remains his best work, is well qualified to ask. He was born and raised in apartheid South Africa and can with some authority ask who has the right to judge the behavior of those living in totalitarian countries?

But it's a view well balanced by his uncouth hero Arnold whose philistinism so offends prim German secretary Emmi (Sophie Roberts) and his fellow inquisitor, the Jewish German-born Lieutenant David Wills (Martin Hutson ). For it is Arnold who delivers the lesson that culture is no guarantee of civilized behavior -that being the most cultured country in the world didn't stop Germany from hatching the Final Solution - and as Arnold tells the music-loving Wills, culture didn't save his parents from being murdered.


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