Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Taking Sides

Ronald Harwood
Chichester Festival production
Duchess Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

First seen in 1995, filmed with Harvey Keitel and successfully revived last year as part of the Chichester Festival, this play about the interrogation of celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as part of the post-war de-Nazification process now comes to the West End in the Minerva Theatre Chichester production.

It is set in the Berlin office of an American army major, which Simon Higlett's design presents symbolically as a bleached out room with plaster fallen from its walls, a shored-up doorway and a ceiling cracking open to the sky, while a cascade of grey boxes and suitcases falls from an upper level suggesting the ghostly presence of those who carried them to the camps. Major Steve Arnold was at Bergen-Belsen two days after its liberation: what he saw has marked him for life. Though you would never guess it from his seeming insensitivity, this is part of what drives his behaviour. He presents himself as a cultural moron, who can't stand the Beethoven that his German secretary plays on a gramophone in the office. He calls such music 'shit' and refers to the eminent conductor as 'the bandleader'. David Horovitch plays him with great force, riding roughshod over finer sensibilities, but with a likeable openness. Secretary Emmi (Sophie Roberts) clearly can't work him out: he can be so pleasant then so tough; nor can his new assistant Lieutenant Wills (Martin Hutson). An insurance claims investigator in civilian life, Arnold must have saved his employer a fortune and none of those ex-Nazis sitting in his hot-seat are going to get the benefit of the doubt.

First of them we meet is Helmuth Rode (Pip Donaghy), 2nd Violin in the Berlin Philharmonic, there both to whitewash both the maestro and himself, spouting examples of how he didn't support Hitler. His pack of nonsense puts us on the investigator's side and helps the play to ride on a current of humour, which make it the more moving when, becoming confessional, confessing that he only got into the orchestra because the better Jewish players had been dismissed, he speaks of his terror under Hitler: 'You cannot imagine what it is like. First you censor what you say, then what you think, then what you feel.'

But Rode is small fry. Furtwängler is the man the Major is determined to pin down and the play is not just about whether the conductor took sides, but which side we take in judging him - and also asking us to question ourselves over how we would have acted were we in the situation of the German people: there is a striking moment when secretary Emmi, whose father was one of those who plotted against Hitler, shrieks the truth that he only did so when he was convinced that Germany was going to lose the war.

Are we going to take the side of the arrogant genius or the interrogator? There is a German woman (Melanie Jessop), widow of a fine Jewish pianist, who witnesses that Furtwängler helped her husband get an exit permit and escape to Paris (where the SS caught up with him) and aided other Jewish musicians, while Lt. Wills feels an artist as great as Furtwängler has the right to special consideration.

Michael Pennington's masterly performance as Furtwängler matches his hauteur with an open honesty that could be performed or real. Is the great man really so politically naïve or is this a smokescreen? He does not hide the fact that he was trying to ensure the survival of his ability to lead his orchestra, that he never made a stand against the regime. Pennington never plays the role for sympathy and interrogator and interrogated are beautifully balanced. As the conductor makes a plea for art being more than politics, for music as something that can keep and the human spirit alive even under fascism, the Major's self-declared immunity to culture loads the balance. Harwood has written a character so immoveable and Horovitch plays him so driven that he might not be believable in real life but it makes a dramatically very effective pairing and Philip Franks' production keeps the balance continually shifting.

Does art transcend politics and justice? Did Furtwängler support the Nazis, tacitly or otherwise? Harwood's play is not in the business of giving answers, but it raises questions that will always be with us where ideologies and political policies harm others, especially if they bring advantage to ourselves.

Playing in repertoire with "Collaboration" until 22nd August 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton