By Ronald Harwood
Directed by Philip Franks
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Tuesday 26th August 2008
The set was as for Taking Sides, but whole. The wall is unripped, the floor uncracked. There are no suitcases on the balcony or anywhere else, and so we have a door back left. The furniture is period (don’t ask me which one), with elegant legs and lots of lovely wood – piano, tables, chairs. There were two (or possibly three) telephones, a footstool and a radio. Warm orange light shines through diamond patterned windows, casting long shadows across the stage. This represents the Strauss villa, while a curved pattern of light and shadows slanted the other way shows us Zweig’s pad in Vienna.
The title Collaboration is a nice play on words. The story concerns Richard Strauss’s artistic collaboration with Stefan Zweig on an opera, The Silent Woman (based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene). We also get to see some of the effects the Nazi government had on artistic affairs, and the pressure that was put on Richard Strauss to collaborate with them. His son had married a Jewish woman, so she and the two grandchildren were under direct threat. This point was hammered home by a thoroughly unpleasant chap called Hinkel, one of those oily young thugs the Hitler Youth was so good at producing.
The story ranges in time from 1931, when Strauss is desperate for a new librettist after the death of his previous collaborator, to 1948, when he had to testify before a Denazification Board in Munich. In 1931, his wife, a practical and formidable woman, suggests he write to Zweig, and the response is both immediate and rapturous. Zweig can’t believe his luck, admires Strauss’s work beyond praise, and already has a couple of ideas for operas. The second one, an adaptation of the Jonson play, is the one that appeals to Strauss, who goes by gut instinct on these things. I was so aware during this scene how familiar educated Europeans were with a wide range of literature, plays, etc., and it reminded me how insular we Brits can be sometimes.
Zweig comes up with a synopsis that greatly pleases the composer, and after a major tizzy when Zweig announces he can’t start on Act 1 for a month (Strauss wants it yesterday), the two settle down to a companionable working relationship. Strauss’s wife has established for us that Zweig has an attractive young secretary who’s devoted to her boss, and an absent wife, so at least one of the plot developments won’t be a surprise.
It’s taken us quite a while to get this far, and although the performances were fine, I was finding it all rather dull; a bit too much biography and not enough drama. The next scene started the adrenalin flowing, with the secretary, Lotte, turning up at Zweig’s house with blood on her head and on her blouse. Although Austria was still independent, the Nazi influence was spreading across the border (Zweig lived close enough to see Hitler’s country retreat up in the mountains), and a couple of young men had tormented Lotte and her friend, with no one intervening on their behalf. It’s the first signs of the brutality to come, although none of that is shown in any great detail.
The Nazis start to control the arts in Germany, and soon appropriate their most famous composer for their own ends. As they’re having a spot of bother with Furtwängler, they appoint Strauss as President of the Reich Chamber of Music, with Furtwängler as his deputy. This is just the first step. When Strauss insists that he must work with Zweig, a Jew, the authorities allow a few performances of The Silent Woman, but do their best to keep Zweig uncredited. Strauss overrules this, and gets into more trouble. He writes a letter which would seem innocuous now, but in declaring himself not to be anti-Semitic, he falls foul of Nazi dogma and has to be put in his place. This is where the threat to his family is spelled out, and it’s also when the wall rips apart. He’s told to resign from the Reich Chamber of Music post, and ordered to write a hymn for the Olympics the following year, which he does. Meanwhile, in Austria, Zweig and Lotte scarper while they still can, and end up in Brazil, where they carry out a suicide pact in 1942. The final scene shows us Strauss, with his wife’s help, giving evidence to a denazification hearing. This covers the rest of the war, and supposedly gives us Strauss’s real feelings, though I would take that with a pinch of salt.
The biggest problem with this play is the lack of dramatic tension. Zweig and Strauss get on so well that there’s none there. They get on so well that they find themselves actually becoming friends, an unusual experience for both of them from what they say. The conflict with the Nazis does improve things a bit, but it’s so one-sided that it doesn’t last. It’s sad to see what happens artistically, of course, but that’s just narration, and we don’t see much of the later horrors as the bulk of the play takes place before the war. So without some gripping focus to the play, what do we have?
Well, it’s interesting to see something of how the Nazis developed prior to the war. It’s always difficult to see this sort of thing clearly with hindsight, as we can’t really know how much the German people knew, what other speculations and rumours were part of daily life, etc., but from this play it seemed to me that only an idiot would have been unaware of the Nazis’ intent, even if the full extent of their activities was hidden. Zweig knows enough to leave ahead of disaster, and Strauss’s own efforts to rescue his daughter-in-law’s family, unsuccessfully, shows that he didn’t believe they were off to some sunny holiday camp where they could get on with their lives without inflicting their sordidness on the pure Aryan race (they did talk some rubbish, these Nazis).
There were some good lines, the running time was only two hours, and from what I saw of the performances, they were very good. The staging, with the two main locations being on the diagonals, had one unfortunate side effect. Particularly at the Strauss villa, one or other character would sit in the chair almost directly in front of us. This meant we had such an oblique view of their profile that they might as well have had their back to us. This is to be expected in this kind of acting space, and it can work as long as the characters move around. Sadly, once a character was in that chair, they rarely moved, so we found ourselves in some of the worst seats in the house. I admire Michael Pennington greatly, and I would have loved to see his performance when Strauss is being confronted with his family’s vulnerability, but alas, I missed it all. Fine as Martin Hutson’s Hinkel was, seeing only one side of that discussion was not enough.
Of course, Steve has had a moderating effect by explaining his view of the play. In Taking Sides, the difficulties are in the conflict between the two men at the centre of the play, whereas in Collaboration, the two central characters do have a good relationship, but external forces make it impossible for them to work together. It’s a good point, and had the external forces been better represented, and from earlier in the drama, I might have changed my mind a bit. We both felt the play was a bit slow in the first half, but picked up in the second. Had the people at the post-show for Taking Sides not been so enthusiastic about this play, we might have had different expectations and enjoyed it more. As it was, we both felt it was not as powerful as others had made out.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me