Taking Sides

Ronald Harwood
Malvern Theatres
(2004)

Oscar Wilde's observation that: "The truth is never pure and rarely simple" could serve as an epigram for Ronald Harwood's intricate, astute and thought-provoking play, beautifully realised in this Touring Consortium production directed by Deborah Bruce.

The setting is the ruins of Berlin, in the aftermath of World War Two, and US army officer Major Steve Arnold (Neil Pearson) is about to interrogate the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, regarded as the greatest conductor of his age, to establish, under the ‘denazification’ programme, the extent of Furtwangler’s complicity with the regime under which he held high office and was showered with honours.

Arnold, it emerges, was given the job because he will not be swayed by regard for the great man - he refers to him throughout as a 'bandleader'. Beethoven's 5th Symphony bores him 'shitless'. And he warns his new assistant, the perky Lieutenant David Wills (Tom Harper), "if you call me sir again I'll make you listen to Beethoven." For Arnold, the issue is clear-cut; Furtwangler is guilty. The only real task is finding the proof which will 'nail him'. When Wills demurs, a furious Arnold demands: "Whose side are you on?"

Arnold, a fine performance by Pearson, has seen for himself the concentration camps, the mounds of unburied bodies, and the sight and smell leaves him haunted, unable to sleep. In the face of such naked evil, how can there be any doubt, any evasion? But his superiority, his control, begin to unravel in the face of the complexities thrown up by the interviews. "Truth?" demands a woman, whose Jewish husband Furtwangler attempted to save, "there is no such thing as truth. Whose truth? The truth of the victors? The truth of the vanquished?" Another witness, who is exposed as a Nazi collaborator, breaks down and tells him: "You have never experienced a reign of terror. You cannot imagine what it is like. First you censor what you say, then what you think, then what you feel."

Julian Glover gives a terrific performance as the aged maestro, arrogant, self-possessed at first, secure in the belief that it is possible to separate art and politics. Art, Furtwangler insists, can be kept pure even in these circumstances, indeed must be. "Through music we preserve liberty, humanity and justice," he tells Arnold. "Like priests, we can still put God in the mouths of the faithful." But Helmut Rode (John McEnery), who served as a second violin in the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwangler, reveals he was only able to join because the removal from the orchestra’s ranks of so many Jewish musicians gave a third-rate musician like himself the opportunity. So the corruption of the state began even then to poison the wellspring of inviolable art. At the end of the play, faced with the horrors of the death camps in a furious and passionate speech by Arnold, Furtwangler breaks down, "How could I know what they would be capable of?"

The play is taut, gripping throughout, with uniformly first-rate performances. Tanya Ronder as Tamara Sachs, the German widow who pleads for Furtwangler, is superb. And Harwood’s writing and Deborah Bruce’s direction keep your sympathies shifting like light from a prism held and turned against a window. The set, by designer Hayden Griffen, brilliantly evokes the mood of the devastated city with its chill, distressed interior, taped up, smashed windows, and grand baroque doors and rococo desk.

Taking Sides offers a great, if deeply uneasy, night at the theatre and sends you out into the cold, two hours later, your head still reeling, full of questions, full of doubts.

Reviewer: Pete Wood