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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A German Life
Bridge Theatre  Spring 2019

Drawing on a documentary film about a 106-year-old German woman, playwright Christopher Hampton has given Dame Maggie Smith the gift of a role so irresistible that the 84-year-old actress broke an announced retirement from the stage.

And Dame Maggie in turn gives us the immeasurable gift of being able to watch her alone onstage for nearly two hours.

Let me be absolutely clear about this – the primary virtue of A German Life is as a vehicle for Maggie Smith. Still, I do have to talk a little about the script itself.

Brunhilde Pomsel's only claim to the world's attention is that she was for a few years a low-level stenographer-typist in Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry.

By her own account she had little contact with Goebbels, knew little inside information or gossip about the Nazis, and didn't even pay much attention to the documents she transcribed and typed.

But in that ignorance lies the play's power, because Christopher Hampton makes clear – and Maggie Smith makes believable – that the lack of attention was deliberate, if not conscious, and didn't start when she went to work for the Nazis.

Much earlier, when Pomsel's Jewish friends started losing their jobs, leaving Germany or just disappearing, she saw no pattern. When her brothers joined the Nazis all she noticed was the stylishness of their brown shirts.

She voted for the Nazis because they had the most colourful posters, a mass rally was just a lot of men with body odour, and she knew about the concentration camps but accepted the story that they were benign re-education centres.

In this portrait of one woman Hampton offers to explain one of the Twentieth Century's greatest mysteries – how the German people let it all happen.

He shows us what Pomsel herself only faces near the end of her monologue – 'We didn't want to know.'

Maggie Smith's challenge is to make this potentially distasteful character both believable and sympathetic enough for us to listen to her. And she uses her actor's sensitivity and a lifetime of experience and accumulated technique to do it.

It is Smith's inflection as Pomsel recalls that Berlin under the Nazis was 'a civilized, well-organised city' that makes the line chilling without heavy-handed irony.

She can with the most subtle pause or phrasing make what seems like a straight line – someone gave 'a completely uninteresting speech' – into a joke or what was intended as a joke – Goebbels' aides stayed so close to him we called them his underpants – sound sinister.

Sitting almost motionless in a set that gradually disappears into darkness as she creates a sense of a real woman, a whole nation and a world with just Hampton's words, Smith gives a master class in acting.

A German Life was sold out for its complete limited run before it opened. It might transfer and it should be recorded for television.

But make no mistake – for all the script's strengths, this event is all about something she told us several years ago we would never see again, Maggie Smith live on stage.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A German Life - Bridge Theatre 2019
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