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Collaboration/Taking Sides

 

The Guardian, 31st July 2008, Michael Billington

 

How does the artist survive in an authoritarian society? The question haunts these engrossing, subtly linked plays by Ronald Harwood. If I prefer the new Collaboration, dealing with Richard Strauss, to the revived Taking Sides, exploring the case of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, it is because the former deals with the creative process and encompasses a greater tragedy.

 

The title, Collaboration, has all kinds of resonances. In part, Harwood is dealing with the fruitful partnership in the early 1930s between Strauss and the Austrian novelist, Stefan Zweig, on the opera Die Schweigsame Frau, but Harwood’s play also charts the growing tension between the Jewish Zweig, who could not endure the Nazis’ destruction of the European culture he so greatly prized, and the German Strauss, who was forced into an accommodation with the prevailing tyranny.

 

While we share Zweig’s revulsion of the growing Nazi menace where artists, like everyone else, feel “defenceless as flies”, we also understand Strauss’ surrender when assured that cooperation with the regime will ensure the safety of his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Even if Harwood omits crucial evidence, such as the grovelling letter Strauss wrote to Hitler in 1935 calling him “the great architect of German social life”, his play illuminates two different responses to barbarism: that of the tragic realist, Zweig, and the naïve dreamer, Strauss.  

 

Under Philip Franks’ limpid direction, the play is finely acted. Michael Pennington brilliantly captures the obsessiveness of Strauss, David Horovitch’s Zweig moves perfectly from deference to defiance, and there is exemplary support from Isla Blair and Martin Hutson.

 

Taking Sides, first seen in 1995 and dealing with an investigation into Furtwängler, who remained chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic  during the Third Reich, tackles many of the same questions: above all, that of whether music can ever be a form of resistance to an evil ideology. But Harwood weakens the argument by Making Furtwängler’s principal interrogator a philistine American major who refers to the maestro as “the bandleader”, and our sympathies flow towards Furtwängler from the start. Pennington lends the morally equivocal conductor a superb wounded hauteur, and Horovitch does all he can with the galloping major. But, although the play if full of narrative tension, it feels like a vindication of the flawed artist, whereas Collaboration offers an exploration of a timeless political dilemma.

 

 

The Times, 31st July 2008. Benedict Nightingale

 

The Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig brought Richard Strauss a libretto based on Ben Johnson’s The Silent Woman that delighted the German composer and left him avid for more joint ventures. But the title of Ronald Harwood’s new play has a second meaning. Zweig was a Jew and had to flee his native Salzburg while Strauss remained in Germany throughout the Hitler period and is still sometimes accused of being a quisling, an appeaser, a collaborator. What’s the truth? Where, if anywhere, is the blame?

 

Well, Harwood has always been fascinated by the predicament of those artists who couldn’t or wouldn’t see how long a spoon one needs if one sups with the Devil. Indeed, it’s also the subject of his Taking Sides, which is being revived at Chichester in tandem with Collaboration. That play, which I’ll review tomorrow, takes a cautiously critical look at the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Its successor is more sympathetic to Strauss, and not just because he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren who, had he been openly anti-Nazi, would have died in Auschwitz.

 

From the moment Michael Pennington’s dishevelled Strauss bustles excitedly on stage, to be reproached for not wiping his shoes by Isla Blair as his battleaxe wife, the composer comes across as an innocent, at times almost a child, uninterested in politics and fanatic only about his music. He initially welcomes Hitler as a new broom and regards his anti-Semitism as a passing absurdity. He can’t understand why David Horovitch’s grave, gentle Zweig leaves for England, then Brazil. How can the friend he so admires and loves desert him and his muse?

 

Anyway, Strauss doesn’t resist when he’s crowned president of the Reich Chamber of Music in 1933, goes on to compose an anthem for the Berlin Olympics, and even makes the odd anti-Semitic remark to Zweig, whom he accuses of caring more about his tribe than his art. Yet he disgraces himself in the Nazis’ eyes by insisting that the programmes for The Silent Woman acknowledges its librettist and, later, by decrying German nationalism in an intercepted letter. In other words, he discovers the hard way something that the realistic Zweig tells him and that other realist, Harwood, regretfully believes.

 

We like to think that art opens eyes and ears, enriches, humanises. Actually, history teaches that it’s at least as vulnerable as it’s resilient and is easily co-opted and/or suppressed by ruthless politicians. And this gives us a moving ending to a gripping play: Horovitch’s Zweig having committed the ultimate “collaboration” with the Nazis by inflicting on himself the destruction they couldn’t manage; Pennington’s half-broken old Strauss battling back the tears as he accuses himself and laments his long-lost collaborator.

 

The Daily Telegraph, 31st July 2008. Dominic Cavendish

 

Brilliant – and devastating. They’re the only words that do justice to the experience of watching Ronald Harwood’s latest play, Collaboration, in tandem with a fresh revival of his 1995 hit, Taking Sides.

 

Harwood gives us  richly absorbing accounts of two very different musical maestros yoked together in historical notoriety by their apparent complicity with the Nazis – despite the recorded endeavours of both men to save Jews from the Holocaust.

 

In Collaboration, it’s the conduct of composer Richard Strauss under the Third Reich that courts our attention; in Taking Sides, it’s the career of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who also survived and thrived during Germany’s darkest days, that fascinates and perplexes.

 

Taken on their own, each yields provocative questions, but, taken together, they form one exhilarating theatrical debate, encompassing the role of the artist in society, the value of art as a civilising force, and the power of individuals to resist tyranny.

 

The title Collaboration packs a powerful pun. At the outset, we see a declining Strauss pining for some creative rekindling from the Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig, a reticent spark of a man. They begin collaborating on an opera based on Ben Johnson’s The Silent Woman, but, as the ideological mania of the Nazis intensifies, so does the pressure on Strauss to dissociate himself from Zweig – a Jew – or face the consequences.

 

While steadfast in his courage against Hinkel (Martin Hutson, superb), the lackey dispatched by Goebbels to tighten the screws, Strauss nonetheless strays into the realm of culpability by virtue of his obstinacy. His mantra –“All I want in life is to be allowed to compose” – suggests a man hermetically sealed off from reality.

 

Michael Pennington is mesmerising as Strauss; full of rheumy dignity, his tufty snowy-white hair makes him resemble some lonely Alpine peak. Towards the end, like a sustained note that suddenly breaks, cracks of anguish appear across his face as he learns of Zweig’s fate.

 

He’s matched for precision by David Horovitch as a twitchy Zweig, who conceals a growing impatience and disbelief beneath a carapace of stiff Teutonic formality.

 

The pair then go on to triumph again in Taking Sides, set in wrecked, post-war Berlin. Horovitch takes the role, originally performed by Pennington, of an American major hell-bent on exposing Furtwängler, with scant respect for artistry or factual accuracy, as a Nazi stooge.

 

Just when you think that Harwood has loaded the argument too much in favour of Pennington’s beatific artist, we’ll be apprised of a particularly repellent contribution to the Nazi cause, in the face of which Furtwängler’s calm self-justifications come across as so much wriggling.

 

Blessed with the thrilling tension of courtroom dramas, neither play puts a food wrong – and the same goes for Philip Frank’s exquisitely paced and performed productions.

 

 

The Times, 1st August 2008, Benedict Nightingale

 

So how could you cope with similar pressures, especially if their full enormity became evident only gradually? That’s the question raised by the Nazi-period artists in the two Ronald Harwood plays in rep at Chichester. The dramatist, himself a Jew who left apartheid South Africa for England, made Richard Strauss the subject of his ethical quiz in his new Collaboration, which I reviewed yesterday. The 1995 play Taking Sides involves Wilhelm Furtwängler, who (among other questionable things) agreed to serve under Strauss as vice-president of Hitler’s Reich Chamber of Music. Michael Pennington brilliantly demonstrates his range by following up a warm, naïve Strauss with an elegant, withdrawn, melancholy Furtwängler whose final breakdown is almost more distressing than the composer’s parallel self-accusations.

 

But this time we see the 1930s only in retrospect, because the conductor us facing post-war investigation from an American officer whose civilian job was sniffing out false insurance claims. And he’s decided in advance that the “bandleader”, as he dubs Furtwängler, is a lying “bastard” who must be “nailed”.

 

The justification Harwood gives Major Arnold is that he’s haunted by the sight of Belsen, but David Horovitch still can’t humanise an inquisitor who comes across as coarse, chippy, philistine and, ironically, Nazi-like in his kangaroo-court biases. This near-caricature is the play’s weakness, but it’s outweighed by strengths that include narrative energy, moral subtlety and, given what artists still sometimes suffer, an awful topicality.

 

Anyway, Furtwängler’s justification is that he rescued many Jews, including some banished from his own Berlin Philharmonic, and that he genuinely believed that he was keeping alive serious music and humane values during the Hitler darkness. And Harwood tends to accept this, acquitting the conductor of fascist sympathies while accusing him of the same sin that Furtwängler ends up urging against himself: that he failed to see that Beethoven, especially well-played Beethoven, could be used to support, bolster, even legitimise the Nazi murderers.

 

Watch Pennington’s face tighten, then sag, as Furtwängler hears his own recording of Bruckner’s great adagio, the lament played on German radio just after Hitler’s death. That moment encapsulates Harwood’s theme. What are the strengths, the weaknesses, the uses and misuses of art? They are the questions finely and formidably enough asked to convince me that both plays and both Penningtons should be transferred to London forthwith.

 

 

Daily Mail, 1st August 2008,

 

Michael Pennington, an under-appreciated veteran of the English stage, is in Chichester playing two snowy haired musical despots.

 

He stars in Ronald Harwood’s matinee/evening double-bill and is terrific in both.

 

In Collaboration, he plays composer Richard Strauss, a man often accused of helping the Nazis. In Taking Sides, he becomes the infamous conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, another artist suspected of supporting Hitler, even though he also helped many Jews escape from Nazi Germany.

 

My Pennington makes Strauss an unworldly, unpredictable figure, sometimes sweet and henpecked, sometimes irascible. Isla Blair is certainly pretty terrifying as the indomitable Frau Strauss.

 

With Furtwängler, we have greater sense of self-importance. Conductors are like that, you know.

 

Mr Pennington achieves these two markedly different characters – who on paper seem so similar – with just one false moustache. The rest is pure acting.

 

Taking Sides was written in 1995 and is a belter, notable for its balance. Yes, Furtwängler was a cultural pin-up in Nazi Germany, but yes, he saved many Jews and stayed in Germany to defend his country’s artistic life.

 

By allowing the audience to make up its own mind, Mr Harwood makes this a more interesting play than if he had himself taken one side.

 

The water is further clouded by the coarseness of the American intelligence officer, Major Arnold, who interrogates Furtwängler.

 

Arnold, just like the Nazis, has tame journalists he can manipulate. He concocts and ignores evidence. You sense Mr Harwood (a Jew bought up in South Africa) is extending his charge beyond Nazism to include wider examples of abusive officialdom.

 

One of the charges against Furtwängler is that he had a rude newspaper critic packed off to the Russian front.

 

Not unknown today, that sort of behaviour. I know of at least one West End producer (much on TV recently) who tries to silence people who give him bad reviews.

 

The newly-written Collaboration may feel like a minor-chord riff on Taking Sides. The first half is slow (I saw three people fall asleep), mainly because it had no injection of Nazi brutality. The whole thing could benefit from more of Strauss’s music.

 

Yet I liked the two shows equally. Collaboration is better at catching the naivety, the other-worldliness, of artists. It is less overtly theatrical, but I liked its more subtle pace and it had a greater warmth.

 

In both plays, Mr Pennington is paired with David Horovitch, who first plays Strauss’s Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, then has a bash at the charmless Major Arnold.

 

I was slightly worried by the wigs Mr Horovitch wore, but he is a solid pro – one of the best.

 

Martin Hutson catches the eye as a swaggering sidekick of Goebbels. Sophie Roberts also deserves a plug, if only for the most piercing stage scream I have ever heard. These Harwood companion plays, meanwhile, deserve only applause.

 

Verdict: Art versus the Nazis (Collaboration)

Verdict: Art versus authoritarianism (Taking Sides)

 

****

 

                                                                                           

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