Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Collaboration and Taking Sides

Ronald Harwood
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
(2008)

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In 1995 Harwood’s play Taking Sides was premiered at Chichester and this year it is presented as a double bill combined with Collaboration. As the plays overlap and complement each other it is certainly worth seeing both – and if possible in chronological order, Collaboration, which takes place between 1931 and 1946, coming first. Philip Franks, who directs both, sets the scene elegantly against designer Simon Higlett’s backdrop - the elegant façade of the white interior of a grand villa, be it in Vienna or Salzburg, with appropriate period furnishings

The plays have the same theme – the belief by two distinguished composers that music and culture transcend politics and that the two can be separated, and Collaboration illustrates the dilemma of Richard Strauss who, in the early nineteen thirties, struck up a close friendship and working partnership with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. He tried very hard to ignore the wishes of the emerging Nazi party and continue the collaboration, but with a much loved Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren how could he refuse to comply with the wishes of the Nazi Party when they were threatened? What could he do? What would you do?

Michael Pennington plays Strauss (and there is an amazing resemblance) as a man obsessed by his music, but very much a family man, expertly managed and organised by a splendidly autocratic and domineering Isla Blair as his wife Pauline, hardly looking up from her book as she demands “Did you wipe your feet?” at his entrance. I did wonder if the comic opera The Silent Woman which he and Zweig created was a joke at her expense. All he wanted was a quiet life and to concentrate on composing but events took over and was it fair that, as an old man, he should later be interrogated and accused of Nazi sympathies and betrayal? In Pennington’s incensed and dramatic justification of his actions he considered the real betrayal to be that of Zweig who, by committing suicide, had effectively removed his exceptional talent from the world. Art, for him, would always come first.

David Horovitch well portrays Zweig – diffident, self-demeaning, and obstinately determined to be no trouble to anyone, whatever their wishes, with rising paranoia as the persecution of the Jews becomes increasingly obvious. Finally believing that the Nazis would take over the world he and Sophie Roberts, as his adoring and mouse-like secretary turned wife, committed suicide.

Subject matter and performance struck a chord with the Chichester matinee audience, mostly of an age to have some memories of the war, and their prolonged applause and a standing ovation showed their appreciation of a play well written, well researched, and superbly performed.

Taking Sides takes place in 1946 in the American Zone of occupied Berlin and, despite the obvious bomb damage (including an amazing crack right across the floor which could have been borrowed from Tate Modern), begins on a much lighter note and with some very welcome humour – that is if you ignore the sight of mouldering piled-up suitcases presumably those of the Jews who perished.

Here former insurance assessor Major Steve Martin (he can spot a fraud at fifty paces) is determined to ‘nail the bastards’ who stayed in Germany and were members of the Nazi Party. David Horovitch again, and with a very different persona from the reticent Zweig, is now a man you could hate – bigoted, crude, referring to the eminent musicians he is about to interrogate as ‘shitheads’, being bored by Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and determined to convict Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler in what appears to be a personal vendetta, picking on every detail he can find to convict him of anti-Semitism, this despite the mounting pile of evidence to the contrary, and referring to him as a ‘band leader’.

Pennington played the part of the obnoxious Major Martin in the 1995 production, but is now the accused Furtwängler, which he performs with a calm dignity and a dogged determination that he was innocent of all accusations. Just as you begin to despise Martin for his browbeating attitude he almost breaks down, remembering the smell of burning flesh as much as four miles from the concentration camps.

Despite losing both parents in the holocaust, Martin Hudson’s Lieutenant David Wills finds his sympathies are with the accused – in a very different character from his aggressive Nazi Hans Hinkel in the previous play. Sophie Roberts is a convincing mouse-like wife in the first and a quietly subservient secretary in the second – but with the loudest scream I’ve ever heard.

In spite of the initial humour I found Taking Sides the more dramatic and profoundly moving production, but neither gave any answers. How could there be? They did though stimulate some animated discussion afterwards.

In repertory until 30th August

Reviewer: Sheila Connor