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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Taking Sides
Duchess Theatre Summer 2009

Ronald Harwood's 1995 drama is revived and performed in rep with the newer Collaboration, both plays dealing with German musicians who remained in Germany under the Nazis, both asking whether not fighting against them amounted to supporting them.

In Taking Sides, the brilliant orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler is being investigated after the war by an American major chosen precisely because he knows nothing about music and cares less (He repeatedly dismisses Furtwangler as 'the bandleader'), and therefore won't be awed by the Great Man.

The question at hand is whether, since Furtwangler not only remained in Germany but led a cushy life as Hitler's favourite conductor, he should be treated as a war criminal. Furtwangler's defense is that art is apolitical and that, if anything, he was implicitly subverting the tyrants by keeping music alive and feeding the spiritual hunger of his audiences.

And of course the playwright's answer is that they are both right and both wrong, since life is far too complicated and shades-of-grey to allow any simple labelling. Undoubtedly Furtwangler prospered under the Nazis, but he also used his position to engineer the escape of many Jewish musicians.

His devotion to music was sincere, but he also stuck around out of fear that the Nazis might turn to his hated rival Herbert von Karajan. He may have kept the best of German culture alive during a dark age, but by doing so he became a poster boy for the Nazis' claim to cultural superiority.

The issues of the play are likely to leave audience members thinking and debating long after the curtain, but of course the play has to work as drama while you watch it. Harwood's structure is somewhat formulaic - there is, inevitably, a 'good cop' officer to balance the major, a witness with some surprise revelations, and a climactic breakdown for the accused.

But the central battle of wills between the major and the conductor is inherently dramatic, and well served here by director Philip Franks and his cast.

Michael Pennington played the American in the original 1995 production, but has now moved into the role of Furtwangler, very much to the benefit of the play. He begins by giving the conductor the haughty calm of the supreme egotist, thus allowing us the theatrical pleasure of watching the mask slip and crack as tiny contradictions to his self-image invade his consciousness.

Fourteen years ago I thought Pennington played the uncultured American as too much of a cartoon to be believable, but now David Horovitch lets us see an intelligent if unschooled man who cleverly uses his ignorance as a weapon. Back then, Pennington made him a Yahoo; Horovitch has him play at being a Yahoo as an interrogation technique, and the rssult is a much more danger-filled and evenly balanced struggle.

Taking Sides doesn't raise questions and offer all the answers, or raise them and refuse to offer any answers. It raises them, demonstrates how very complicated the answers are - and, perhaps, how invalid the questions - and then invites you to join in the effort to resolve the problem.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review - Taking Sides - Duchess 2009