Taking Sides/ Collaboration

Posted on: 17 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews Ronald Harwood’s gripping plays which are being performed separately at the Duchess Theatre.

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Can music ever be a form of resistance to an evil ideology?  And is it possible to keep artistic aspiration and political action separate?

These are the issues addressed by Ronald Harwood in his gripping plays Taking Sides and Collaboration which are being performed separately at the Duchess Theatre.  The latter is a new work whilst the former was first staged in the 90’s but the two productions first appeared together last summer at Chichester.

I will begin with Collaboration not because it is the most recent but because it takes place first chronologically.  In 1931, when author Stefan Zweig accepts German composer Richard Strauss’ invitation to collaborate they embark on an invigorating artistic partnership in a spirit of optimism.  But as the ideological mania of the Nazis intensifies, so does the pressure on Strauss to disassociate himself from Zweig, a Jew, or face the consequences.

You’re drawn to sympathise with Strauss who fears that if he doesn’t agree to the Nazis’ terms his Jewish daughter-in-law will suffer.  Eventually Zweig leaves Germany under pressure and ends up in Brazil where he later commits suicide, leaving Strauss devastated.

The same moral dilemma faces the loftier Wilhelm Furtwängler: should he leave his beloved Germany and take his chance as a refugee or remain, whatever the price, and perform beautiful music?  Indeed Furtwängler was Hitler’s favourite conductor and the cultural jewel in the crown of the third Reich.  As a high profile Nazi sympathiser, Furtwängler became the perfect post-war target for interrogation. 

So in Taking Sides which takes the form of a courtroom drama, set in the American Zone of occupied Berlin in 1946, Major Steve Arnold, a US major is hell-bent on exposing Furtwängler as a Nazi collaborator, with scant respect for artistry or factual accuracy.  But his task is not as easy as he first imagined.

Both these absorbing dramas ask difficult questions about how we would stand up to a tyrannical regime.  Strauss puts his dilemma in a nutshell – “I play along with them for one reason—that I can go on composing”.

Director Philip Franks elicits superb performances from Michael Pennington who doubles as Strauss (“I will never belong to any political party” he says at one point in the play) and Furtwängler, a man seduced by power, wealth and womanising.  Strong support is given by David Horovitch as both Zweig and the American prosecuting lawyer, while Isla Blair gives a gem of a performance as Strauss’ anti-Nazi wife.

In dealing with the internal conflict that wracked two of Germany’s greatest musical figures, Harwood ends up by appearing to reach no moral conclusion.  But nevertheless these plays provide two nights of searing, unforgettable drama.

When: Booking until 29th August

Where: Duchess Theatre

Box Office: 0844 412 4659

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