In examining the working relationship between Richard Strauss, mighty composer notoriously compliant with the Nazi regime, and Stefan Zweig, his librettist and an Austrian Jew, the sinister pun of the title Collaboration reveals ever more complex implications for audience present as well as people past.
Written to be coupled with Harwood’s earlier Taking Sides, it pursues the themes of the survival of the artist under a totalitarian regime already explored in Harwood’s The Pianist, An English Tragedy and Mahler’s Conversion. Within the political arena, what can one person do? When culture is commandeered by an authoritarian state, who opts for the art of compromise with a compromising of art?
We meet the artists in the Berlin of 1931 engaged on a new opera, The Silent Woman. Jaded Strauss (a theatrical, irascible, mercurial Michael Pennington) is reinvigorated by talents of the formal yet impassioned Zweig (David Horovitch). But their work cannot evade the Nazi annexing of culture for long. When Hinkel (Martin Hutson), a bright young thing from Goebbels’ office, visits Strauss to terminate his working collaboration with a Jew, Strauss’ idealism - “All I want in life is to compose” - takes on a self-imposed myopia as he feels forced to mangle his morals. In contrast, as Zweig, the clear-sighted realist, Horovitch is able to show his increasing despair yet also defiance through cracks in his poignantly subdued demeanour.
History has already told us the ending to the story. By emphasising the fact of Strauss’ Jewish daughter-in-law and, therefore, grandchildren, Harwood allows us sympathy with the great man who betrays himself. In the end, the audience too feels, as Zweig describes, “defenceless as snails” against the bombardment of moral, artistic and personal responsibilities and terrible choices.
As well as directing with beautifully judged restraint, Philip Franks has cross cast with Taking Sides to near flawless effect. Both leading men excel with support from Isla Blair as an indomitable Pauline Strauss, Sophie Roberts as Zweig’s gentle, girlish secretary and Martin Hutson giving Hinkel an increasingly chilling schoolboy enthusiasm.
Both plays stand alone, but viewed together they provide a rich theatrical experience that will live long in the memory and continue to seek answers.
- Triona Adams
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from July 2008 and this production’s original run at Chichester Festival.
It’s easy to underestimate Ronald Harwood. His last West End play, 2001’s Mahler’s Conversion was panned by most critics. But the author of The Dresser, Quartet and Taking Sides (revived here as the first half of the present Chichester double bill) not to mention award-winning screenplays, should never, ever, be taken for granted – even if on the surface, he may appear to be repeating himself. Collaboration is a humdinger.
Like its companion piece, Collaboration falls once again into the music-biography category – a drama based on real personalities. Yet there is no one who has written about classical music with such perception as Harwood or who has pursued it within a Jewish-Nazi context so penetratingly. If Taking Sides looks at the compromises of art with politics through the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler remaining in Nazi Germany, Collaboration similarly peers into the mystery of composer Richard Strauss’ apparent ‘accommodation’ with Hitler’s wretched regime.
Unlike the other, Collaboration does not take the form of a formal dramatic interrogation, though in essence it amounts to that. Instead, it is in part the story of musical creativity and ‘collaboration’ explored through Strauss’ friendship with Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew.
Collaboration is a word loaded with ambiguity. Harwood applies both its positive and negative aspects, portraying the love Strauss (Michael Pennington) developed for Zweig (a marvellously transformed David Horovitch) and his need. “I am dying,” Strauss wails to his formidable wife, Pauline (Isla Blair). His whirling creativity must have an outlet, a librettist. Through the play, we come to see how their musical collaboration became Strauss’ lifeline at a time when such a relationship was about to become untenable.
So far so predictable. Their new opera, The Silent Woman, equally predictably, is banned. As their fortunes unravel, the imminent Holocaust and Harwood’s examination of the role of the artist in society come into focus, but more too. It is the very essence of life itself - love and freedom – which come to haunt us. As Martin Hutson’s chillingly smiling Goebbels apparatchik encircles the unwitting Strauss, we feel not only the pincers exerted on a naïve German composer in the 1930s but also the boot of the tyrant wherever it occurs.
Harwood has one more surprise in store for us. In the blistering climax orchestrated by director Philip Franks, ‘collaboration’ with the Nazis by taking his own life becomes the greatest betrayal Zweig could perpetrate in the view of Strauss and uttered by him in a moment of terrible anguish before a denazification tribunal. Pennington, all fire and destroyed spirit has done nothing finer and is matched toe-to-toe by a magisterial Blair, and Horovitch, the heart of cultured Europe that died in the flames.