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An English Tragedy

Ronald Harwood
Palace Theatre, Watford
(2008)

As a hugely successful if relatively unknown author and playwright, Ronald Harwood won an Oscar for his screenplay of The Pianist and has just been awarded a Bafta for his superb script for the recent French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

But as some anonymous contributor to Wikipedia shrewdly points out, Harwood seldom writes original material directly for the screen, usually preferring to act as an adapter. So too with this wordy new play, more a docudrama than a tragedy.

Set in the troubled aftermath of the Second World War, it draws deeply on the historical archives, but especially on Rebecca West’s 1948 best-seller The Meaning of Treason with its journalistic story of John Amery, elder son of a Tory Cabinet minister, who after a misspent youth ended up in Berlin during the war, making propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis as a misguided but passionately patriotic Brit.

He also visited PoW camps in Germany in an unsuccessful attempt to recruit British soldiers to join his Legion of St George to fight alongside the Waffen-SS in an ideological war against the Soviets, the Jews and world Communism.

Eventually the Germans recognised he was a busted flush and towards the end of the war he made his escape to northern Italy to join the beleaguered Benito Mussolini.

So much for the back story, but the only glimpse we get on stage of these turbulent events is a brief moment as a Communist partisan arrests Amery and his glamorous girlfriend at gunpoint, before handing them over to the Allies for questioning.

Thereafter, with Amery banged up in Wandsworth on a charge of high treason, the action largely consists of interrogations, interviews with shrinks and legal eagles, and hand-wringing episodes as Amery’s decent parents struggle to come to terms with events.

In fact the family accumulated psychiatric evidence of his mental instability and unfitness to plead, plus documents collected by his brother Julian purporting to prove that while assisting Franco during the Civil War, Amery had acquired Spanish citizenship.

All this seemed certain to win him an acquittal; except that Amery put his own head in the noose with an eleventh-hour declaration of guilt on all charges, an apparently motiveless suicidal act that even rattled the judiciary, a mystery that Harwood’s play now sets out to unravel and explain.

But the most theatrical passages come during the melodramatic closing scene of stiff upper-lip bravado and fraught family farewells in the condemned cell, before the hangman Albert Pierrepoint arrives to carry out his grisly duties.

As the chain-smoking central figure, clutching a teddy bear, Richard Goulding creates a surprisingly sympathetic Amery, like an anti-semitic Sebastian Flyte, a witty, wilful man-child whose rabid fascist rant is almost entirely discounted by his utterly disingenuous charm.

And as the hours tick away to the fatal dawn he develops a warm, confiding relationship with Bill Thomas giving a strong cameo performance as the Wandsworth warder who came to admire his young and apparently fearless prisoner.

Superb support comes from Diana Hardcastle as Amery’s anguished mother, and especially from Jeremy Child as the former Establishment politician Leo Amery, the most strongly written character: a father wrestling with his own inner demons, who concealed his Jewish ancestry as a means to political advancement and now fears that this may have triggered his son’s untrammelled misbehaviour and self-destructive loathing.

The staging by Di Trevis, first in a season of Watford Palace centenary celebrations, is set on an almost bare stage, at first dominated by a huge swastika tab.

This lifts to reveal a second swastika occupying the entire playing space, with sections that slide to create a variety of settings and something of an assault course for the actors.

The design by veteran Ralph Koltai, skilfully lit by Roger Firth, is certainly a striking one. But Amery had no time for Nazi war aims against Britain, and a more appropriate symbol for Amery would have been a tattered Union Jack to reflect his sincere if dubious patriotic fervour.

Reviewer: John Thaxter