Ronald Harwood
Chichester Festival Production
Duchess Theatre

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Playing as a companion piece to his earlier play Taking Sides and with the same company, this is also about a musician in Nazi Germany, the great composer Richard Strauss, and his friend and librettist the writer Stefan Zweig.

Moving largely between Strauss's home in Garmisch in Germany and Zweig's in Salzburg, Austria, from which Zweig could look up at the mountains where Hitler had made his summer home, the Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden, it shows their lives being destroyed by the Third Reich.

The play opens in 1931 when Strauss, shattered by the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is desperate to find an equally compatible librettist and get on with another opera. This is a man driven by the need to write music but wanting the stimulus of other's ideas to do it. He exists in a cocoon of music, isolated by his eminence, with his life protected and organised by his bossy, house-proud wife. Michael Pennington plays him as a man passionate about his work, oblivious to all else, though the confidence he shows in his own influence perhaps undermines his claims to be a loner.

Zweig is a sort of loner too, already alienated from his wife, but much more aware of what is happening in the world, and especially in Germany. David Horovitch gives him a diffident pomposity that seems just right for a writer who wants quiet concentration, who is organised and full of enthusiasm for his work and rooted in his culture. He even gives us a glimmering of understanding of why when, having escaped to England and then Brazil, he cannot face the separation from it

The two men each admire the other's work and become close friends and easy collaborators. Zweig is Jewish and well aware of Hitler's policies and the growth of anti-Semitism, demonstrated at grassroots level here by the abuse of his young Jewish secretary, touchingly played by Sophie Roberts. The first half of the play is taken up establishing the characters and the situation but that enables us to get closer to these men and when Dr Goebbels and the Nazi machine catch up with Strauss the impact becomes the stronger from seeing how long he has gone on being oblivious of the real threat -- or deliberately ignoring it.

Hitler admired Strauss's music, and works like Ein Heldenleben clearly fitted the National Socialist agenda. They wanted him as a celebrated supporter, but his collaborator Hofmannsthal had been a Jew, and so is Zweig. Their work is not permissible. With a son married to a Jewess and therefore Jewish grandchildren, Strauss is put into a situation where, if he co-operates, he may gain them protection. Harwood shows us the mechanics by which people are trapped into collaboration, how they justify what they are doing as being the only way of trying to help others and go on creating music. Pennington gives us a man convinced that he can pull rank on mere politicians who shatteringly discovered that he is putty in their hands.

The working of the Nazi machine is presented through Hans Hinkel (Martin Hurson), a lackey of State Minister Goebbels, smart and well spoken with a savage sting. Frau Strauss (a magnificently assertive Isla Blair) may try to boss him as she does her husband, telling him to wipe his feet and declaring she will tell Goebbels and the Führer what's what, but he soon makes the real position clear.

Pennington's Strauss becomes a trapped rabbit. When, in a scene that goes forward to 1949, he presents his own apologia, he moves one to tears. 'What would you have done?' he asks. 'My motives may not have been pure, but they were human.' But even here, Harwood for a moment lets Strauss place music first, suggesting that Zweig had let him and music down by so forthrightly sticking to his principles and his race and making it impossible to continue their collaboration: to some measure still blind to the last.

An added delight provided by this season is seeing these actors - especially Horovitch - playing such different roles in the two plays, In a world where too many casting directors and producers chose actors according to type it is good to see them doing what most actors think is their job - being someone different, someone else.

Playing in repertoire with "Taking Sides" until 22nd August 2009

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Chichester

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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