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 1946, with the Nuremberg trials in full flow. A red-faced US Major in the American zone of Berlin leads an investigation into conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. 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 Furtwangler as it takes us back to the 1930s, when Goebbels’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 emphasise that nothing is clear cut. The nuances and ambiguities of the situation – particularly in Furtwangler’s case – mean that hindsight cannot easily judge. Should Furtwangler 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 Furtwangler 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 Furtwangler, whom he believes is clearly a collaborator. He couldn’t be more different as 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 finally, sadly, quashed.
Collaboration ends with Strauss and his wife sitting before a ‘denazification’ 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.