Michael Pennington On … Doing a West End DoubleDate: 11 June 2009
Michael Pennington is an actor, director and author who, in addition to numerous seasons at the RSC, has played leading Shakespearean roles around the world with the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded in 1986 with director Michael Bogdanov. His myriad West End credits include The Guardsman, An Ideal Husband, Gross Indecency, Waste, The Entertainer and his one-man show Sweet William. He's currently starring in Ronald Harwood's Second World War plays Taking Sides and Collaboration, which are running in rep at the Duchess theatre having first been presented together last July at Chichester Festival’s Minerva Theatre.
Both Taking Sides and Collaboration view a similar theme but in very different ways. Taking Sides concerns what was called the 'denazification' process immediately after the war when the allies arrived in Berlin and set about trying to prove who among the German cultural community had been collaborating with the Nazis. Among the people they were rather determined to nail was the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who unlike some of his musical colleagues had remained in Germany throughout the war and became Hitler's favourite conductor. The play concerns the process whereby Furtwängler is examined by a rather aggressive American interrogator. It's fascinating for me, because I did the play fifteen years ago when I played the interrogator, whereas this time round I'm playing Furtwängler.
Furtwängler remains a very ambiguous figure and it depends on your perspective as to whether you think he should or should not have left. His argument was that he did more good inside the system than outside it, and that he helped Jewish musicians escape by using his influence with Hitler. The play dramatises the debate without affiliating itself to a particular point of view.
Collaboration goes a little bit further back into twentieth century history, though it also ends up at the time of the denazification process. It starts in 1932 at the point when composer Richard Strauss collaborated with an Austrian writer called Stefan Zweig to work on an operatic version of Ben Johnson's The Silent Woman. While they were working on it the Nazis came to power and disapproved of Strauss, the most famous German composer, collaborating with a Jew. They used various methods to dissuade Strauss from proceeding with the project, including threatening his Jewish daughter-in-law and two half Jewish grandchildren. He capitulated to the regine though he put a big fight for Zweig, and fought for him up to the point when he just had to accept he was beaten. Strauss faced denazification after the war but in a much milder form as with his family connections it was easy to understand why he acted as he did.
The plays deal with two musicians struggling with totalitarianism at roughly the same time. Strauss and Furtwängler did in fact know each other so there's a direct link between the two works, but they're completely separate plays in terms of the characters within them and the style in which they're written. Taking Sides is very intense – two hours in one room in real time. Collaboration on the other hand covers over ten years of history, including the early 1930s when everything seemed possible culturally; Germany was probably the most cultured country in the world at that time. So in that way the mood shift is much greater in Collaboration, ending up in much the same sense of darkness as Taking Sides.
From a personal point of view, the two roles are a great double. They're constructed in very different ways but they're both marvellous characters. Furtwängler is an old Prussian, very hoity, proud and dictatorial as the old conductors were. He's not a natural hero at all, and is certainly not all that lovable. He shared some of the Nazi's nationalism, but without the poison. Strauss on the other hand is immensely lovable, full of energy and creativity and joy, which you can hear in his music. The play is very much about him waking up too late to what is going on around him, as artists sometimes do. So they're very contrasting characters physically, emotionally, psychologically, even though their stories are so similar.
When you compare the two plays you can hardly tell it’s the same writer, which is remarkable. Ronald (Harwood) is very catholic in his interests and that has really shown itself up in his recent screenwriting career. He’s a very grown-up playwright in the sense he doesn’t tell you what to feel, he doesn’t tell you what to think. He divides his audience and always has done; what you are listening to is people in discussion and usually their predispositions are being challenged and changed. Unlike a lot of playwrights he doesn’t even tell you subtly what to think; he’ll ask the questions without providing the answers and I think that is very much appreciated by audiences because he doesn’t insult their intelligence. That’s a rare gift - it sounds simple but it’s actually not that common. I suppose structurally he works in quite a traditional model, which might lead people to think that he's old-fashioned writer, but I certainly don’t think he is.
The plays were conceived to be performed in the round, so we've had to reconfigure them slightly for London. There are three small proscenium theatres in the West End; one is the Duchess, one is the Fortune and the other is Criterion. You can’t get into the Fortune or the Criterion, so we're very lucky to have got the Duchess because it’s 460 seats which suits us perfectly - there are very few West End theatres as intimate. We could of course do it in a 100 seat studio, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun!
- Michael Pennington was speaking to Theo Bosanquet