Taking Sides – August 2008


By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 14th August 2008

We saw this play when it premiered in the Minerva back in 1995, with Michael Pennington playing the part of Major Arnold. Tonight he was playing Furtwängler, so apart from anything else it was going to be interesting to see his performance in the other main role. We’ve also seen a touring production which had Neil Pearson and Julian Glover as the two leads; as I haven’t got any notes for these priors, I’ll probably discuss them a bit later on.

The set had a white painted panelled wall across the back, coming apart at the seams – the top was starting to lift away on the right hand side, and the panelling on that side of the wall was disappearing. The balcony on our left held a jumble of suitcases, which also cascaded down onto the set below, covering a doorway on that side. The suitcases were ghostly with dust. There were three desks, filing cabinets, chairs and a phonograph. The grey wooden flooring also had a crack running across it. Things looked bad. The balcony also turned out to be a waiting area for the first two interviewees – we saw them up there when the play started. Delightfully, this set didn’t do anything in the course of the production, it just sat there allowing the action to happen. Much as I like the technological magnificence of all-singing, all-dancing sets, it’s nice to let the play speak for itself occasionally, too.

The story is set in Berlin in 1946, and concerns some interviews conducted by an American major who’s checking up on Furtwängler’s potential involvement in the Nazi regime. Did he support them or didn’t he? Although the play is fictitious, there was an investigation into Furtwängler’s activities at that time, as part of his denazification request. There are no notes or records of the interviews, so this is all guesswork on the author’s part, but I like the result.

There are two other members of the interrogation team. One is David Wills, a young Lieutenant, Jewish, who’s helping Arnold, but whose love of music makes him inclined to help Furtwängler, and the other is Emmi Straube, working as Arnold’s secretary. She’s German, and is the daughter of one of the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler but failed.  There are a number of references to that, and to the respect people have for her because of her father’s heroism.

We see two brief interviews before the great man himself enters the room. The first is with Helmut Rode, his second violinist, who praises Furtwängler and tells them the mandatory baton story, and the second is a woman called Tamara Sachs, whose husband Furtwängler saved from the Nazis before the war. Her husband had been the most promising pianist of his generation, but also Jewish, and Furtwängler agreed to help once he heard the young man play. Unfortunately, they went to live in Paris, and when the Germans took over France, her husband ended up in the camps, where he died. She is passionate in Furtwängler’s defence, and has a list of some of the people he helped to get out of Germany. From the major’s response, it’s clear he’s not interested in the evidence unless it points to Furtwängler’s guilt.

When he interviews Furtwängler, things don’t go quite according to plan, and the major loses his temper. Furtwängler is also capable of throwing a strop – he is a musical genius, after all – so the scene gets quite lively. The matter is unresolved when a call comes from the British, informing Major Arnold that they’ve found the archives of a man who helped run the Nazi’s culture ministry, so there’s a chance that they’ll be able to dig up some dirt from those files. Arnold sends Furtwängler away so he can check this out, and hopefully nail him another day.

The second half reiterates the first. First there’s a short scene where Helmut Rode is persuaded (some might say bribed) to turn against Furtwängler and dish the dirt. He does his best, but it’s mostly pretty tame, and I found myself thinking of how unreliable evidence can be when the source is being paid for it. The alleged telegram to Hitler on his birthday, for example, never actually emerges into the light of day. Then there’s a reprise of Tamara Sachs’ evidence, when a large bundle of letters arrives with a covering letter for “to whom it may concern”. These letters are from lots of people whom Furtwängler helped, and Tamara has passed them on as she is back in Paris, and worried that she won’t be able to attend when they hold the hearing in order to give this evidence herself.

Ignoring all the letters, Arnold presses on with the interview. This time, he’s got more specific questions to ask. When he tackles Furtwängler about the birthday telegram to Hitler and Furtwängler denies all knowledge, David helpfully suggests that Arnold produce the telegram, to refresh the maestro’s memory. Arnold has to concede defeat on that one, but soon brings up other information which suggests Furtwängler has less than pure motives for staying in Germany. He had a steady string of women, for example, and has lost count of the number of his illegitimate children, suggesting he’s produced more than a few. He was offered a house and bomb shelter, but refused both. The evidence that he had his competitors and critics sent off to the Russian front was shaky to begin with, and Furtwängler soon deals with Arnold’s botched attacks on these grounds. But now he’s less confident than before, and feels the need to explain, to justify himself. He’s realised how his situation looks to outsiders who haven’t been through the nightmare that was life in Germany under the Nazis, and he tells us about the difficulties of working under a regime that was constantly looking to undermine anyone with authority who wasn’t fully supportive of their ideals and power. He describes himself as naïve for believing that art and politics could be kept separate, but asserts that in his view the importance of music in assisting people to escape from the horrors of their lives took priority for him. Where there’s music and beauty, life can’t be all bad.

This provokes a furious outburst from Major Arnold. We’ve heard earlier that he has actually been at the camps, and seen for himself the horrors they contained. He’s already shown us he has nightmares, and now the terrible effects of what he’s seen come pouring out of him. He’s beyond angry at what the Germans have done to their fellow human beings, and the idea that somehow the playing of beautiful music could compensate for that makes him snarl with rage. This is why he wants to ‘get’ Furtwängler – he wants revenge. He wants to determine who were the ‘bad’ Germans, and who were the ‘good’ Germans, like Emmi’s father. He sees Emmi has her hands over her ears – she greatly respects Furtwängler, and has been distressed by his treatment in the interviews – and he tells her to remove them (the hands, not the ears). She does, but when he goes on about how heroic her father was, she snaps, and lets out an almighty scream, which stops everyone dead in their tracks. Finally, she admits what she’s known all along; that her father only joined the conspiracy when the war was already lost – he was no hero.

Furtwängler himself is overcome with the strain of it all, and has to be helped off stage. With Arnold making a telephone call to confirm that they can mount some sort of prosecution, even if they have to use tame journalists to spread lies about the man, David puts on one of the records of Furtwängler’s work to try and drown out everything else. Arnold yells at him to turn it off, but he just turns it up louder. And so the play fades out.

This was quite a powerful production. As I watched Michael Pennington’s performance, I found the memory of the earlier production became clearer. Daniel Massey had played Furtwängler then, and he kept his character much more imperious and confident throughout. When left with the silence in the first interview (this was Major Arnold’s trick – he left a gap which the interviewees felt compelled to fill; not so Furtwängler) Daniel Massey was calm and self assured. Julian Glover was equally unconcerned. But Michael Pennington played it with more variation. His Furtwängler was slightly nervous, looking around a little before deciding to wait for another question. Not so much guilty as unsure of what he was expected to do.

There were other variations I noticed as well. The first production was directed by Harold Pinter, so naturally the emphasis then was the two men confronting each other in a room cut off from the outside world, having a verbal battle of wills (seem familiar?). It was very intense and powerful. Michael Pennington’s Major Arnold was more focused, more intelligent, and I wasn’t so aware of the war time context, nor do I remember the other characters so well. With the second production, which we saw at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the proscenium arch stage naturally made the action less intimate and less intense, but I was much more aware of the situation in which these people were working. Julian Glover was just as commanding as Furtwängler, but Neil Pearson’s Major Arnold gave me the impression of a man close to a nervous breakdown, who had been so deeply affected by the sights at the death camps that it was only this work that was keeping him together. I also remember Emmi’s scream from this production – it was the strongest of the three, and had the most impact on me.

What I liked most about this production were the performances from the minor characters. Helmut Rode (Pip Donaghy) was a broken, shuffling man, ready to do whatever it took to survive, as he would have done during the Nazi years. Tamara Sachs (Melanie Jessop) was a strong woman, who had known great love, and who was prepared to go to great lengths to help someone she revered, not only as the saviour of her husband, but as a great man in his own right. Emmi (Sophie Roberts) was a tense, self-contained young woman, who saw much and said little, and David Wills, the young lieutenant (Martin Hutson), was a strong presence, representing the person with an open mind and a love of music, giving an insight into the dilemma that was facing us, the audience, as we tried to figure out right from wrong. Where I felt this production let the play down somewhat was in the relatively unambiguous playing of Major Arnold. He came across as a bully with an agenda, totally unprepared to listen to any point of view but his own, and with absolutely no regard for any evidence that didn’t fit into his pre-arranged scheme. His arguments always seemed slanted and irrelevant; this may be partly due to our familiarity with the play, so that revelations about Furtwängler’s illegitimate children, for example, don’t come across as significant now – the papers are full of these sorts of stories about public figures so we’re not so shocked as we used to be. Perhaps I was also influenced by the pre-show talk we went to, where we learned of Richard Strauss’s greater involvement with and support of the Nazi regime. In this talk, Furtwängler was clearly referred to as not being a Nazi sympathiser, so perhaps that coloured my judgement more than I realised.

But in the end, I still found that the basis of the Major’s arguments was completely unsound, and given the extent of Furtwängler’s help for endangered musicians, I could only feel sympathy for the man. I can still see Major Arnold’s point of view, but it wasn’t presented strongly enough for me this time around. In fact, checking the play text for the order of events, I found myself reading lines that I just didn’t hear during the play. Were they cut, did I miss them, or were they just not delivered clearly enough for me to register them?

There was a post-show discussion, and I find more people are staying behind for these now. Michael Pennington was asked about the differences between the two productions he’s been in, and was very diplomatic, but did point out that while he had a pretty good memory of Daniel Massey’s performance as Furtwängler, given the number of times he’d seen him do it only a few feet away, he found those memories faded quite quickly as he got into the part for himself. The ambiguity of the play was mentioned quite a bit, and the way that everyone is left to make up their own minds was definitely appreciated. Ronald Harwood has obviously been closely involved with both of these productions (see Collaboration later this month), as there were a number of references to his input. When someone questioned the accuracy of the dialogue, we were told that Ronnie had said ‘you know, Richard the Third didn’t actually say “Now is the winter of our discontent”’, which got a good laugh, as well as being a very good point. Although I didn’t enjoy this performance as much as I’d hoped to, I have found it very thought-provoking, and it’s nice to finally get down my rapidly fading memories of the other productions we’ve seen.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me