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Review: Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938 (Ustinov Studio)

Vanessa Redgrave presents the play based on her father's experiences in the run-up to the Second World War

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Vanessa Redgrave in Vienna 1934 - Munich 1938
© Nobby Clark

There's no denying that the Redgraves are an extraordinary family. Since the late 19th century (and probably further back), each generation has trod the boards to great success. In this new play, 82 year-old Vanessa Redgrave, who has fervently and brilliantly taken to the Redgrave vocation, tells us a little more about a few of them. Here, however, their tales are intertwined not with stories of acting, but with stories of political bravery and activism.

Activism is also a strong calling which runs in the Redgrave family, with Vanessa an outspoken left-wing campaigner along with her brother Corin and her father, Michael, who was a declared socialist at a time when it really wasn't that fashionable or that safe. She opens this piece, which is part family memoir, part spy story that she has directed and written herself, alone on stage. She's presenting a kind of TED Talk about a few of the connections behind the lead players in Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938.

It's a play of several, whimsical threads, focusing in the first half on the remarkable American intellectual and spy Muriel Gardiner, who falls in love with poet Stephen Spender. Together, along with Spender's other lover Tony Hyndman, they work to help the Austrian Social Democratic Party and Europeans needing asylum at a time when the Nazis were on the cusp of power.

After Redgrave kicks off proceedings, a trio of actors move the narrative on, speaking out in the first person to the audience, rather than in dialogue to each other. Redgrave floats in the background, sitting and watching and occasionally interjecting gently but firmly, when she needs to make something clear. In the second half we begin to understand more about Michael Redgrave, his wife Rachel and Michael's love affair with T (the same T for Tony who crops up alongside Stephen Spender and Muriel Gardiner). All the figures in the play – poets, artists, socialists – orbit each other's lives, suddenly popping up in each other's stories.

It's a winding, often cloudy narrative which certainly offers a few nuggets of illumination into the lives being lived by a few at an intensely unstable and frightening time. And Redgrave's timing is impeccable – the upheaval in the years 1934 to 1938 throughout the world feels dangerously close to today's. She also directs with a fluidity that means the somewhat hard to follow narrative is nothing if not intriguing. There's certainly a series of stories, struggling a little to get out here, which need to be heard.

Paul Hilton, who worked with Redgrave on the award-winning The Inheritance, draws on his turn as EM Forster in that piece to compelling effect here, mainly as superb German writer Thomas Mann. Redgrave has Hilton speak the entirety of one of Mann's provocative anti Nazi speeches, which accuses Britain of terrible complicity in allowing fascism to exist. Hilton is intense and brilliant. Robert Boulter's Stephen Spender and Lucy Doyle's Muriel Gardiner are each convincing and immensely enjoyable to watch. These aren't really parts in which they can inhabit, however, more present.

Perhaps this play feels more like a work-in-progress than a finished article, but Redgrave's admirable intentions are to highlight how the writers, artists and intellectuals fought something of a war of words and of actions too. And in this she certainly succeeds.