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A CurtainUp London London Review
Taking Sides and Collaboration

It's not such a bad idea. Critics give you bad reviews. You get them sent to the Russian front.— Helmuth Rode
Taking Sides and Collaboration
Pip Donaghey as Helmuth Rode and David Horovitz as Major Arnold
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Both these plays are set in Germany and look at the moral issues for musicians under the Third Reich, whether to continue to express themselves musically or whether to leave Germany and their musical careers in protest of the treatment of Jews and Jewish musicians in particular. The first play Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Pianist in 2002, premiered at Chichester in 1995 and went on to be made into a film with Harvey Keitel in 2001. Taking Sides looks at the De-Nazification interviews by an American army officer Major Arnold (David Horovitz) of a famous German conductor Dr Wilhelm Furtwängler (Michael Pennington). The second and new play, Collaboration, is the story of the composer Richard Strauss (Michael Pennington) and his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig (David Horovitz).

Taking Sides is as tense as any courtroom scene as the American interrogator questions people close to Furtwângler. He interviews a Second Violinist Helmuth Rode (Pip Donaghey) who owes his position in the prestigious orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, to the elimination of the Jewish musicians. Donaghey is red faced and nervous as to what to expect. Then Tamara Sachs (Melanie Jessop) the wife of a talented Jewish pianist gives evidence. It appears that Furtwângler has helped some Jews to get travel permits to leave Germany but he was only able to be helpful because he had contacts high up in the German chain of command, notably with Joseph Goebbels. So Furtwàngler's good deeds are also incriminating. Furtwängler pleads that art, his music, is more important and longer lasting than politics and this is the pivotal debate of Taking Sides.

In Collaboration Richard Strauss who became associated with the Third Reich is seen blackmailed into co-operating with the regime because otherwise they will arrest his Jewish daughter in law Alice and her children, Strauss' grandchildren. Strauss' attempt to keep the writing relationship with Stefan Zweig alive and to get Zweig credited for the libretto for his opera The Silent Woman shows the other side of the picture we have of collaboration.

Watching both plays, I wonder how brave I would have been if they were threatening my grandchildren? Both sets are essentially the same, duck egg blue and a stately mansion but the Taking Sides set is fractured as if a bomb has impacted nearby and on the balcony are a higgledy piggledy collection of suitcases, sprayed duck egg blue like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, indicative of chaos and of course symbolic of the small suitcase that departing Jews were allowed to take with them.

The performances are impressive. Michael Pennington takes the roles of the proud, immaculately dressed, conductor, the Maestro Furtwängler who almost everyone holds in deference, and of Richard Strauss, the anxious composer who just wants the librettist he can work with back. David Horowitz has two more contrasting roles as the Walter Matthau like interrogator, an eccentric American soldier who makes it his job to find out why Furtwängler agreed to conduct for Hitler's birthday concert, and also as the quiet librettist Zweig who commits suicide in exile in Brazil in 1942.

In a lighter moment in the earlier play, Arnold insists on calling Furtwängler the leader of the band, but it is Arnold who has seen the devastation of the camps at Belsen and who is troubled by nightmares. Isla Blair is the formidable battle axe and ex- opera singer Pauline Strauss, yet who is frightened by the Nazi threat as delivered by Hans Hinkel, played by a chilling Martin Hutson. Hutson is a pleasant German American in Taking Sides. Sophie Roberts is Emmi Straube, the secretary daughter of a general in the bomb plot against Hitler in Taking Sides and in Collaboration, she plays Zweig's ingénue second wife.

Taking Sides is the more complex play as it forces the audience to debate the issues from the point of view of the musician. Which is more important to posterity, politics, which will pass, or music which represents humanity, liberty and justice? Should Furtwängler have left when Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter did? When he is asked why he did not, he says, "Because they were Jews." Harwood also has some moments of humour. A wry moment in Collaboration is when Richard Straus tells us that the rightwing Wagners want Hitler investigated to make sure he's a Nazi!

Taking Sides and Collaboration
Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Philip Franks

Starring: Michael Pennington, David Horovitz, Isla Blair, Pip Donaghey
With: Sophie Roberts, Martin Hutson, Melanie Jessop
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Mark Jonathan
Sound Design: John Leonard
Soundtrack: Matthew Scott
Running time: Taking Sides Two hours 20 minutes with an interval and Collaboration Two hours with an interval.
Box Office: 0844 412 4659
Booking to 22nd August 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th May 2009 performance at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)

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