The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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 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
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.
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