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A CurtainUp London Review
Tales From Hollywood
by Lizzie Loveridge
I was delighted by the Donmar's new production of Christopher Hampton's Tales from Hollywood, which was originally staged at the National in 1983. The play spans the years 1938 to the 1950s in Hollywood, where many European refugee writers have fled to escape Hitler. Among writers hoping to earn a living in the movie industry are Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.
Hampton who's probably best known for his translations of Yasmina Reza, Ibsen and Chekhov amongst others, but he is also a playwright in his own stead. He has also translated three plays by Ödön von Horváth. This Austrian playwright who wrote Tales from the Vienna Woods was killed during a storm in Paris when the branch of a tree fell on him in the Champs Elysées. It is von Horváth, who in Hampton's play lives on to go to Hollywood and narrate Tales from Hollywood. The play is brimming with quotable lines from Hampton's gentle wit has this work of fiction which features real people brimming with quotable lines.
After von Horváth (Ben Daniels) arrives in Hollywood e he learns that "a writer's importance to the cinema is on a par with the hairdresser". His commission to rework Christopher Marlowe's Edward II fails when the chief writer, Mr Money (David Hounslow) declares, "So Edward II was a goddamn faggot!".
In addition to Thomas Mann (Gawn Grainger) and his impecunious brother Heinrich (Richard Johnson) and Heinrich's young alcoholic wife, Nelly (Lizzy McInnerny), Bertolt Brecht (Phil Davis), Von Horváth meets and marries a Jewish writer Helen Schwartz (Emma Cunniffe). We follow this community through Senator McCarthy's Anti-Americanism investigations. Von Horváth confesses to his wife that he was a member of the Nazi Writers' Union in the 1930s and after she leaves for New York he drowns in a swimming pool accident.
Hampton's scholarship is obvious as are his finely drawn characters but they are also hugely enjoyable, and so is the picture of the clash of the two worlds -- the displaced European artists and the empty and glamourous Hollywood set. Brecht is particularly acerbic, his criticism of capitalist America relieved only by his liking the ice cream.
Blonde and handsome Ben Daniels carries his large part with great style, affectionately narrating these atmospheric stories of his friends. The production also displays fine ensemble acting, with Phil Davis' seething Brecht and Lizzy McInnerny's hapless, accident prone Nelly particularly good.
Scot Park's set has the backdrop of an old swimming pool. Prop moements are seamless integrated into the play by a stage crew in period costume. Slide projections from the 1930s help create the atmosphere of the journey across America to Los Angeles.
Finally here are a very few of those quotable quotes,
"Gone with the Vindt" --- Nelly
"A girl, an American I know asked me what Ars Gratia artis meant over the gates at MGM. I told her it meant 'abandon hope all ye who enter here." --- von Horváth
"My reputation rests on the legs of Marlene Dietrich" --- Heinrich Mann author of the novel that was filmed as The Blue Angel.
"I don't know what I can do here. I feel like a sausage in a greenhouse." --- Brecht
"I'm preparing a version of the Communist Manifesto in hexameters" --- Brecht