Watch on the Rhine
In April 1941, when Watch on the Rhine premièred, isolationist America was eight months away from joining the war in Europe. Hellman’s play was a withering call to arms, the bitter pill sugared with sharp wit and contrivance.
The fulsome programme notes, giving historical context and Lillian Hellman’s personal background and politics, are valuable, but, though based on reality, Watch on the Rhine is a straightforward melodrama of good versus evil and ignorance, with a Romanian villain and a noble anti-fascist German in confrontation on Washington DC’s neutral, innocent and naïve soil. Two different worlds collide.
Rich Washington widow Fanny Farrelly, with mother-hen-pecked son David, are awaiting the arrival of her daughter Sara whom they've not seen for twenty years. She arrives with German husband Kurt Muller and her three precocious children who have seen much. Kurt has fought in Spain and Germany against Franco and the Nazis.
The contrast between the comfortable Americans, with black butler Joseph and French housekeeper Anise, in their spacious home and the hungry refugees from Europe in their drab brown is stark. The multilingual children are a handy prism—out of the mouths of babes and all that—the youngest Bodo (superlative debut by Bertie Caplan) providing comedy and charm.
The children are amazed at the food, Kurt is amazed at how clean the piano is—yes he plays it. But they are not the only house guests. There is also Romanian Count Teck de Brancovis and his American wife Marthe, a friend of the family. Marthe is in love with nervous, hard drink before breakfast David and he with her, which brings out the worst in the impecunious gambling Count. It reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, and Curtiz’s 1942 Casablanca—the personal mixed with the dastardly.
Why are these gullible Americans putting up with the vile Count? The Count tries to blackmail Muller for cash or else he’ll reveal him to the Nazis who have already captured Muller’s underground resistance friends. What can Muller do but what he has to do? A thriller and a family drama, which starts as a cosy television sitcom—designer Basia Binkowska frames the production in a cinematic / televisual screen (it was made into a film in 1943 starring Bette Davis) with wordy prologue and screen credits.
Fanny’s (Patricia Hodge’s timing is perfect) sharp tongue—no filter at all—is worth the price of any ticket. She’s funny and domineering, but a kind heart beats underneath. Butler Joseph and housekeeper Anise are allowed great familiarity. So the cosy scene is set, but when the visitors arrive too early, the cast step out of the snug set on to the real stage, the real world, as it were.
And slowly the drama is revealed, Kurt’s drama and his mission—Mark Waschke is outstanding. Only at the end in a heartfelt speech do we realise that his going back to Europe will be a huge sacrifice to him, his wife and children, but he can do no other. This is where the comedy gets real. The Count, in a deliciously spiteful performance from John Light, is a convenient story device. The audience is the target.
Director Ellen McDougall, and her several dramaturgs, designers and musical director Josh Middleton, have produced a class act. Music and design, referencing the forties, spell out the context in captions and song. Not a weak note in the thespian team, either.
Hodge holds the centre till it gives way to Waschke; the children, wide-eyed Caplan, quiet Chloe Raphael and serious Billy Byers are so very good; Geoffrey Streatfeild does downtrodden well in an underwritten David. Caitlin Fitzgerald is Sara, the calm centre of the Mullers; Carlyss Peer is the decorative Marthe (another underwritten role). Kate Duchêne as Anise does wonders with a small role, as does David Webber, who takes no nonsense from his mistress.
Our emotions tugged, our minds appealed to, one can forgive the very obvious plotting. It gets a standing ovation, and though this is a press night—much delayed thanks to the usual winter illnesses amongst the cast and understudies—it feels genuine. Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine is a must-see.
As well as being entertaining—and that it is with great performances—it throws a reflecting mirror on the present fight in Europe against the senseless terror from the East. It amplifies the quote, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Hellman shakes the Americans “out of the magnolias”.
Reviewer: Vera Liber