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Taking Sides

The Chichester Observer, 28th May 1995

Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides” defies its audience to take sides.

With perfect balance, Harwood presents in all their complexity the reasons why conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler was both wrong and right to stay in Nazi Germany.

Harwood pitches Furtwangler, the voice of culture, against a Major in American intelligence, the voice of pragmatism.

Furtwangler argues that to serve music is to serve liberty, humanity and justice. The major can think only of the stench of death at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

But it goes deeper than that. Furtwangler had to stay in Germany if his musical pre-eminence was not to be challenged. Against that, the Major is a near philistine who derides the greatest living conductor as “the band-leader”.

The result is an undramatic-sounding subject which becomes compellingly dramatic.

Daniel Massey is outstanding as the proud conductor, flashing in anger at accusations which hit home more than he cares to admit. And Michael Pennington excels as the hectoring, bullying Major.

It’s a debate taken up convincingly in the secondary characters: Gawn Grainger is a sold-out musician-turned-informant; Geno Lechner is the daughter of a hero who turned hero when he had no choice.

Suzanne Bertish bombards the Major with proof of Furtwangler’s humanity; and Christopher Simon is a Jew who warms to Furtwangler’s vision of a realm where music banishes pain.

Harold Pinter’s direction is tight, but not so tight that he doesn’t let the play breathe.

The play’s modesty is its strength. It doesn’t set out to resolve whether art can remain aloof from politics. It simply presents the debate’s complexity – and in the form of a dramatic drama.

Chichester Festival Theatre can he hugely proud to be staging its world premiere.

The Daily Telegraph 24th May 1995, Charles Spencer

At the end of Ronald Harwood’s magnificent new play, the audience didn’t just clap, they stamped their feet with approval. It’s the kind of behaviour you expect from an unruly rock audience rather than sedate Chichester, but this is undoubtedly a work that deserves to be applauded to the rafters. It holds the whole auditorium in thrall for two-and-a-half hours, raising the most profound questions with piercing urgency and comfortless clarity.

“Taking Sides” is set in a grand but cheerless government building in the American zone of occupied Berlin in 1946. Here Major Steve Arnold, a superficially amiable and informal American officer, is conducting investigations into the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, prior to a denazification tribunal.

The case against Furtwangler is simple. He remained in Germany throughout the Nazi regime rather than seeking exile like many of his colleagues. He was photographed shaking Hitler’s hand and could be seen as an “advertising slogan” for the Third Reich.

For much of the action it seems as if Harwood is declaring his hand too early. Despite his baby face and broad smiles, Michael Pennington’s major is a thug. Cheerfully philistine, he is absolutely determined to “nail the bastard” and is completely unimpressed when anyone speaks of Furtwangler’s genius as a musician. For the major, Furtwangler is just another bandleader. What matters is that he collaborated with unspeakable evil. In contrast, Furtwangler appears to be a man of manifest dignity. He is played with an amazing mixture of sorrow and intensity by Daniel Massey, his voice querulous with indignation, his eyes glinting as he goes into combat, his whole body language suggesting a righteous man on the rack.

There is a good deal of evidence in his favour. We learn how Furtwangler, like Schindler, used his Nazi contacts to save the lives of Jews. And the conductor speaks with wonderful eloquence about his art, his belief that music offered an alternative vision to the Nazi horror, a vision of liberty, humanity and justice.

But an uncomfortable kernel of doubt remains. In the second half we hear of the conductor’s anti-Semitic remarks, of his jealousy of Karajan (who joined the Nazi party twice), of the rumour that Furtwangler might have sent a hostile critic to his death.

But the biggest question of all is whether art can ever be put in the scales against the death camps. You begin to understand the major’s brutal hostility when you remember he is fresh from the horror of Belsen.

Auden observed that his poetry didn’t save one Jew from the gas chamber. Harwood’s play makes the even more disturbing point that great art, the matchless music Furtwangler drew from his orchestra, was actively enjoyed by the very people who sent the Jews to their deaths. What does that say about the spiritual and redemptive qualities of art? What does it matter that one man was unfairly treated because of his ambiguous role in such a catastrophe?

“Taking Sides” resonates powerfully in both the mind and the heart, and Harold Pinter’s production, atmospherically designed by Eileen Diss, is virtually flawless. A master of menace and confrontation himself, Pinter finds all the tensions and undercurrents in Harwood’s text; and as well as the two compelling leading performances, the supporting roles are superbly taken, with especially fine work from Gawn Grainger as a sad, craven Nazi collaborator.

This is a tremendous play, tremendously performed.

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