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Collaboration/Taking Sides

Duchess Theatre, London

The London Evening Standard, 28th May 2009, Fiona Mountford

“What would you have done in my shoes?” The plaintive cry of composer Richard Strauss, backed into collaboration with the Nazi regime, echoes down the decades. These sophisticated dramas from Ronald Harwood, cleverly paired for the first time in a compelling double bill from Chichester Festival Theatre, serve as a ringing reminder that it is all too easy for us to import our moral absolutes from another time and place.

Both pieces centre on distinguished German artists forced to account for their activities under the Third Reich, Taking Sides (1995), more satisfying complex because of the greater uncertainty surrounding its subject, pits legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler  (Michael Pennington) against American Major Steve Arnold (David Horovitch) of the De-Nazification Commission in 1946 Berlin. Collaboration (2008) gives Strauss (Pennington again) an easier time of it, categorising his particular compromises as prudent moves to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law.

The two plays, seen together like this in elegant productions from Philip Franks, gain strength and depth from each other. It’s intriguing to witness the strong case fro the prosecution is Sides but then to turn to Collaboration for evidence of how the Nazis squeezed until the pips squeaked.

Pennington is magnificent as the two music men, giving Furtwängler a patrician aloofness that recoils from Arnold’s dogged ignorance, and showing how Strauss’s artistic self-absorption led to a dangerous divorce from reality and ultimately cost him his precious friendship with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig (Horovitch). Horovitch’s chameleon brilliance means that he is unrecognisable in his switch between American bumptiousness and Austrian reserve.

This is a rich, rewarding trip to a place where guilt and innocence have been painted over by umpteen shades of grey.

Whatsonstage.com, 28th May 2009, Triona Adams

In examining the working relationship between Richard Strauss, might composer notoriously compliant with the Nazi regime, and Stefan Zweig, his librettist and an Austrian Jew, the sinister pun of the title Collaboration reveals ever more complex implications for audience present as well as people past.

Written to be coupled with Harwood’s earlier Taking Sides, it pursues the themes of the survival of the artist under a totalitarian  regime already exposed in Harwood’s The Pianist, An English Tragedy and Mahler’s Conversion. Within the political arena, what can one person do? When culture is commandeered by an authoritarian state, who opts for the art of compromise with a compromising of art?

We met the artists in the Berlin of 1931 engaged in a new opera, The Silent woman. Jaded Strauss (a theatrical, irascible, mercurial Michael Pennington) is reinvigorated by talents of the formal yet impassioned Zweig (David Horovitch). But their work cannot evade the Nazi annexing of culture for long. When Hinkel (Martin Hutson), a bright young thing from Goebbels’ office, visits Strauss to terminate his working collaboration with a Jew, Strauss’ idealism - “All I want in life is to compose” - takes on a self-imposed myopia as he feels forced to mangle his morals. In contrast, as Zweig, the clear-sighted realist, Horovitch is able to show his increasing despair yet also defiance through cracks in his poignantly subdued demeanour.

History has already told us the ending of the story. By emphasising the fact of Strauss’ Jewish daughter-in-law and, therefore, grandchildren, Harwood allows us sympathy for the great man who betrays himself. In the end, the audience too feels, as Zweig describes, “defenceless as snails” against the bombardment of moral, artistic and personal responsibilities and terrible choices.

As well as directing with beautifully judged restraint, Philip Franks has cross cast with Taking Sides to near flawless effect. Both leading me excel with support from Isla Blair as an indomitable Pauline Strauss, Sophie Roberts as Zweig’s gentle, girlish secretary and Martin Hutson giving Hinkel an increasingly chilling schoolboy enthusiasm.

Both plays stand alone, but viewed together they provide a rich theatrical experience that will live long in the memory and continue to seek answers.

Whatsonstage.com, 28th May 2009, Triona Adams

In a theatrical coup that should be relished, Ronald Harwood can boast not one but two plays transferred to the same West End stage. Taking Sides (in a sense the parent as well as companion piece to Collaboration with which it was revived in Chichester last year) premiered there in 1995.

Again taking a musical artist surviving a Fascist regime, in this instance Wilhelm Furtwängler, renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich, Harwood addresses the uncomfortable responsibilities of artistic integrity when weighed against personal safety. Unlike Collaboration, which explores the creative process itself, Taking Sides asks: if art can be powerful propaganda can’t it, conversely, make an eloquent protest and, if so, what sort of man could take that stand?

Set in the devastated Berlin of 1946, Simon Higlett’s blanched design litters a bomb-fractured room with the ghostly suitcases of the dead and dispossessed. Harwood tightly constructs his material around an interview of Furtwängler (Michael Pennington) by a US interrogator as part of the “de-notification” process.” Major Arnold (David Horovitch) is determined to expose the great conductor as a Nazi collaborator, remaining unswayed by the maestro’s reputation “musicians and morticians ... all pieces of shit.”

In less skilful hands this structure could lack narrative drive but, unlike Harwood’s stultifying ‘Mahler’s Conversion’ (covering similar ground), here the playwright keeps the pressure high while, supported by a superb cast, Pennington and Horovitch chart the shallows and quicksands of disclosure and concealment with subtle, often devastating, skill.

The question might remain, on which side does the author stand? Whereas Arnold is a bullying, boorish philistine, Furtwängler appears the epitome of European culture and sophisticated intellect. The audience’s preference seems guided towards the artist who wrested harmony from horror and “comforted” his people. Yet, with all his barking, Arnold is a passionate man, worrying away at the truth, driven by an ever-present sense of outrages against humanity that must never be repeated. Horovitch is particularly affecting as Arnold confronting his own witnessing of the ovens at Belsen after which Furtwängler’s urbanity takes on a sinister edge.

Perhaps Harwood is, in the end, ambivalent and it is this very ambivalence that forces the audience to examine not just ideals but realities. As Arnold’s Jewish lieutenant says “What would you do?”

The Official London theatre Guide, 28th May 2009

Ronald Harwood’s plays, written independently of each other, are now staged in repertoire at the Duchess Theatre, painting a portrait of the struggle to maintain the independence of culture under the Third Reich.

“My party is art” says the German composer Richard Strauss at one point during the second of Harwood’s plays, Collaboration. But under the Nazis during the 1930s, artists were forced to choose more of an allegiance than that; art and music could no longer remain politically independent under a regime that burned books, banned Jewish works and sacked those deemed unsuitable. Both Taking Sides and Collaboration examine the extreme difficulties faced by renowned artists placed in this position.

Taking Sides is set in 2946, with the Nuremberg trails in full flow. A red-faced US Major in the American zone of Berlin leads an investigation into conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Did he collaborate with Hitler and propaganda minister Goebbels in order to remain conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic or did he use his position to help hundreds of Jews escape?

The second play, Collaboration, makes us re-assess any judgement we have made of Furtwängler as it takes us back to the 1930s, when Goebbel’s henchman, Hans Hinkel, strong-arms Strauss into cooperating with the regime by threatening the life of his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

No one, I imagine, could know how they would react when placed in a similar situation and what Harwood achieves in both plays is to emphasis that nothing is clear cut. The nuances and ambiguities of the situation - particularly in Furtwängler's case - mean that hindsight cannot easily judge. Should Furtwängler have fled, left his art and his beloved country behind, to avoid being compromised? Can we forgive his exploitation of the situation, based on very human weaknesses, given that he helped others flee? Both the conductor and Strauss are depicted by Harwood as having a certain naivety; Strauss in particular, blinded by his devotion to his art, does not entirely grasp the implications of the Third Reich’s hold on German culture. Collaboration, for him, means working with his cherished friend, the Austrian Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. The librettist, however, understands the situation all too clearly and with utter despair.

Both plays are led by Michael Pennington and David Horovitch as the central pairing. Pennington morphs from the proud, poised, neatly attired Furtwängler into the dishevelled Strauss, whose obsession with music and devotion to his family makes him a more sympathetic figure than the conductor. As Major Arnold, Horovitch is a bear of a man on a mission to bring down Furtwängler, whom he believes is clearly a collaborator. He couldn’t be more different from Zweig, a softly-spoken, calm man who submits just as calmly to his fate.

The pair is ably supported by Martin Hutson as a young Jewish American officer and the Nazi Hinkel, and Isla Blair as Strauss’s wife Pauline, a sturdy, forthright woman whose admirable attempts to stand up to her rulers are fin ally, sadly, quashed.

Collaboration ends with Strauss and his wife sitting before a ‘de-nazification’ board, justifying their decisions under Nazi rule. It is easy to view the circumstances from afar and judge. It is not so easy, argues Harwood, to cope in an unprecedented situation when forced to walk the tightrope of survival.

The Daily Telegraph, 29th May 2009, Charles Spencer

Taking Sides

Ronald Harwood’s double-bill of full-length dramas, first seen in Chichester last year, offers a rigorous exploration of the relationship between art and totalitarianism, focusing on two great musicians, the composer Richard Strauss, and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who were both investigated for collaboration with the Third Reich after the war.

Both pieces offer a serious, penetrating and moving debate about music, politics and the responsibility of the individual, but if that sounds dull and worthy, be reassured - they also prove gripping, highly entertaining theatre.

Taking Sides concentrates on interviews between Furtwängler and and American major in Berlin in 1946. It’s a historic fact that Furtwängler helped many Jews to escape Hitler’s Germany, but the aggressive American, played with a splendidly disconcerting mix of coarse humour and moral fervour by David Horovitch, has been shattered by his first sight of Belsen and has no inclination to take a sympathetic view of collaboration.

The show asks big questions: can even the most sublime music make any dent in evil, as Furtwängler suggests it might, and, of so, how did those listening to his concerts return happily to work for Hitler?

Michael Pennington, who has never quite received his due as one of our finest senior leading actors, is superb as the anguished, dignified conductor who might not be quite as noble as he seems.


In Collaboration, we watch the elderly Richard Strauss working with the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig on an opera. This is a more domestic play, and Strauss’s delight that his creative juices are starting to flow again begins to dissipate when the authorities put pressure on him for working with a Jew.

Horovitch shines again as the engaging Zweig, while Pennington discovers rich humour as well as pain in the role of Strauss. Among the supporting cast, Isla Blair offers marvellous comic value as Strauss’s battleaxe wife, while Martin Hutson chills the blood as a rat-like emissary from Goebbels.

Both Collaboration and Taking Sides leave us wondering how we would have behaved in similar circumstances.

The Times, 29th May 2009, Dominic Maxwell

“Why,” asks Richard Strauss in Collaboration, the more recent of Ronald Harwood’s two plays about German musicians who kept working under Nazism, “do we expect great artists to be great men?” Well, as played by the excellent Michael Pennington, this is one great artist prone to self=delusion. He thinks that he can carry on working with his new librettist, the Austrian-Jewish Stefan Zweig, even as Nazism tightens its grip through the Thirties. He comes to realise that you don’t play the system, the system plays you.

Both these plays, first produced together by Philip Franks’s ensemble company last year at the Chichester Festival Theatre, set their themes in stately fashion. Leave collaboration at the interval, and you’d think it was just a nice little show about how much Strauss and Zweig liked each other. In Taking Sides , from 1995, the American Major Steve Arnold confronts Pennington’s Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hitler’s favourite conductor, over his complicity in the defeated Nazi regime.

Harwood sustains his quietly powerful stories with an increasingly gnarly moral complexity and makes us ask whether we would have behaved any differently, while feeding us a lot of ideas about the insinuating nature of Nazi oppression. Franks’s productions, which are complementary but otherwise unconnected, so can be seen separately, are kept compulsive by superb performances from Pennington and David Horovitch. Pennington is dapper, arrogant, a king in exile as Furtwängler, who saved many Jewish lives by keeping them in his orchestra. And he’s nervy, impassioned and defeated as Strauss, who, Harwood argues, wanted to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Although Harwood is clearly sympathetic to both men, Horovitch’s sardonic Major Arnold and his pristine, neurotic Zweig - two performances of contrasting yet unshowy brilliance - both remind us that these are life-and-death issues, not abstractions. There’s strong support, too, from Isla Blair, as Strauss’s formidable wife, Pauline, and Martin Hutson as a middle-managerial Nazi minister.

Taking Sides is the more forensic, argumentative piece. Collaboration is more affecting, ending with Strauss’s tearful 1948 statement of regret.

Yes, Harwood sometimes gives us too many clues: “I wonder how we would have behaved in his position?” asks one character of Furtwängler, when we’ve either got that point or must have slept through the play. But see either of these fine plays and you’ll get a gripping reminder of how fragile our freedom, artistic or otherwise, can be.

Financial Times, 29th May 2009, Sarah Hemming

How appropriate that this Chichester Festival Theatre staging should bring these Ronald Harwood plays to the West End together. Both focus on the issue of Nazi collaboration, both on famous musical figures, both on whether art can and should transcend politics. Each is a fine drama. But together they work as two sides of the same coin, forcing is to ask ourselves what we would have done, faced with the characters’ dilemmas.

Taking Sides is the earlier play, the more focused and more ambivalent. Set in 1946, it depicts interviews between the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and Major Arnold, a US interrogator determined to nail him for apparent collaboration.

Harwood loads the dice slightly by making Arnold boorish and without feeling for music. But otherwise this is tightly argued, deftly constructed, riveting drama that constantly shifts your opinion, the more so because Philip Franks’ production is so subtly performed. Michael Pennington makes Furtwängler a sensitive, passionate but aloof character; David Horovitch brings pain to Arnold’s fury. Between them they wrench your sympathies this way and that. The play shows the ease with which more certainty undermines integrity: Arnold, sure that right is on his side, abuses Furtwängler and twists evidence.

Collaboration approaches the same subject from a different direction. Here we don’t argue about moral compromise in retrospect, we see it in action; here we don’t appreciate the agonies intellectually, we see them unfold. Harwood charts the working relationship from 1931 to 1946 between the German composer Richard Strauss and the Austrian librettist Stefan Zweig. The word ‘collaboration’, first denoting a happy creative partnership, becomes tainted as Zweig, a Jew, is forced to flee Austria and Strauss is bullied into working with the regime.

Here the questions about motive are fewer: Harwood seems clear that Strauss’s fears for his Jewish grandchildren drove his apparent complicity. It is the terrible impact on these two artists that takes centre stage. Pennington, as the mercurial, driven, petulant Strauss, and Horovitch as the self-contained but deeply passionate Zweig, are superb. They lead a fine cast who take contrasting roles in each play, quietly reinforcing the whole thrust of this wise, humane double bill.

The Guardian, 30th May 2009, Lyn Gardner

What would you have done? That’s the question both implicit and explicit in these two separate but intriguingly linked Ronald Harwood plays about the role of art and the artist in totalitarian regimes. They bring substance, reflection and genuine emotion to a West End drowning in a sea of sing-along fluff.

In Taking Sides, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose recording of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played on the radio in the wake of Hitler’s suicide, faces questioning in postwar Berlin from an American n major determined to uncover evidence that the maestro was not a saviour of Jews, but a willing collaborator with the Nazi regime. In the  teasingly named Collaboration, it is the behaviour of the composer Richard Strauss that is interrogated. The composer wrote with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, but his fears for his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren meant he never stood up to be counted when the Nazis rose to power.

This is an old-fashioned drama with a capital D, but it is so brilliantly upholstered and acted you don’t worry about the fact that the plays are more smart than subtle. Taking sides is so full of tension that you forgive Harwood for conveniently rigging the argument by making the Major so crudely philistine; Collaboration is very slow to come to simmering point but when it does it boils over. Michael Pennington, so straight-backed as Furtwängler, trembles like a tree as the broken Strauss recalling the suicide of his friend, Zweig, whose final act might be viewed as a kind of collaboration.

Pennington’s performance in both plays are deep and textured and he is surrounded by actors, including David Horovitch as the Major and Zweig, who gives simultaneous masterclasses in quiet, unshowy but vivid acting.

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