Review Round-Ups

Review Round-up: Positive Judgment for Horvath?

Christopher Hampton’s championing of Austrian playwright Odon von Horvath – who was tragically killed at the age of 36 in 1938 by a falling tree branch in Paris – continues with his new version of von Horvath’s final play, Judgment Day, which opened at the Almeida Theatre last Thursday 10 September 2009 (previews from 4 September), running until 17 October (See News, 14 Oct 2008).
In a small village in Austria, diligent station master Thomas Hudetz is a well respected member of the local community until flirtatious young Anna momentarily distracts him from his duties, causing a fatal train wreck for which the town needs to find the culprit. Written in 1937, the play is set loosely set in Nazi Germany and picks apart the disasters that occur when no one pays attention or takes responsibility for their actions

Hampton has previously adapted von Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods, Faith Hope and Charity and Don Juan Comes Back from the War and, in his own original play, Tales from Hollywood, imagined von Horvath as a character who survived the tree branch and emigrated to Los Angeles.

This new staging of Judgment Day, the first in London in 20 years, is directed by James Macdonald, designed by Miriam Buether and stars Joseph Millson as Thomas Hudetz and Laura Donnelly as Anna. The large ensemble cast also features David Annen, Suzanne Burden, Tom Georgeson, Daniel Hawksford, Jack James and Sarah Woodward.

First night critics applauded a “stunning” production, which, through James Macdonald’s direction, successfully “unifies” the expressionistic and realistic elements of the play, building “atmospherically” – an adjective used by every critic – and exploring moral complexities with a disturbing mix of “sharp humour” and psychological intensity. Critics agreed that Joseph Millson gives a strong central performance, matched by the rest of the cast, and that Miriam Buether’s subtle and nuanced set is a significant factor in the evening’s success. Gratitude was paid by most to von Horváth’s champion, translator Christopher Hampton, for helping to bring a great writer’s work back to the London stage with this “wonderful restoration”.

  • Michael Coveney in stars) – “The play was given a stunning expressionist British premiere by Stephen Daldry at the Old Red Lion 20 years ago, but James Macdonald’s equally fine Almeida production is more measured, more evenly atmospheric and thoroughly hypnotic, as the action revolves slowly… Macdonald marshals the cast – boosted by supernumeraries – in a relentless grip of tension, so that the final scenes of ghost-like apparitions and dead of night encounters follow without any jolts or jumps … It’s a wonderful restoration of a great play and fully vindicates Hampton’s persistent advocacy of Horvath over the years, both on stage and in print. The rush of the trains, and the sense of both physical and moral danger throughout, is brilliantly sustained in Neil Austin’s amazing lighting and Christopher Shutt’s expertly chilling soundtrack.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “This gripping moral fable by Ödön von Horváth had its British premiere 20 years ago in a Stephen Daldry production. It emerges even more powerfully in a ?ne translation by Christopher Hampton and a stunning production that conveys the ability of Horváth, an Austro-Hungarian who saw himself as a German writer, to ?nd historical resonance in a local tragedy … The di?culty is that the play veers, not least in a climactic supernatural scene, between expressionism and realism. But James Macdonald‘s masterly production imposes a uni?ed style with the aid of Miriam Buether‘s design – the superb set allows us to see the action from di?erent perspectives. And Moritz Junge‘s costume design cleverly implies that Hudetz, who says ‘I’ve always followed orders’, has the external aspect of an SS o?cer … Horváth’s play is profoundly German in its cryptic portrait of survivor guilt; yet, in this production, it reaches out to all of us in its reminder that we are the sum of our deeds.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The strengths of the production are James Macdonald’s detailed direction and Miriam Buether’s technically ingenious design, elucidated by Neil Austin’s clever lighting. Only the excessive use of dry ice rankles. The performances are robust — the best is that of Joseph Millson, hauntedly sensitive as Hudetz. But the play itself has defects … Von Horváth’s genius is his ‘use of language to explore the use of language, and the ravages of its misuse’. While Hampton’s version is adroit, this theme evaporates in translation. Furthermore, the otherworldly ending (the precise nature of which it would be crass to disclose) is neither necessary nor convincing. Judgment Day is an intriguing hybrid of social comedy and noirish entertainment, but lapses into melodrama and in the end a gratuitous supernaturalism.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The great virtue of James Macdonald’s fine production, with atmospheric designs by Miriam Buether, is that it brings a whole community to vivid, detailed life, while allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions about the moral malaise that seized Germany under Hitler. There are no swastikas, no Jew-baiting, but we sense throughout a meanness of spirit, a vindictiveness, and a complete failure by almost everyone to live in truth and act with generosity. The piece also works powerfully as a moral thriller … Then, in the final brilliant and disturbing scene, we enter the realm of the dead. Macdonald is constantly alert to the play’s sharp humour and its moral urgency … There are superb performances in even minor roles, and Joseph Millson as the haunted stationmaster, Laura Donnelly as the increasingly neurotic Anna, and Sarah Woodward as a particularly malevolent gossip shine especially brightly. One leaves the theatre impatient to see more of Horváth’s morally complex and highly atmospheric work.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – Christopher Hampton’s “trenchant new version of Judgment Day is brought to life now in a creepily atmospheric production by James Macdonald at the Almeida, which powerfully communicates the play’s thriller-like tension, haunted soul, and mordant humour … Highlighting the peevish claustrophobia of the community, Macdonald crams much of the action onto a narrow trestle stage that serves as the station platform and rotates to form various interiors, such as the inn where the grotesque welcome home party for the released Hudetz takes place. There’s a shuddering noir-like feel and a slow, heart-thumping pace to the scene … where Laura Donnelly, superbly taunting as the girl, almost wills Hudetz into murdering her so as to silence her tortured conscience and prove to him how far into actual evil he will go in order to secure the punishment he subconsciously craves.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times – This “revival … as staged by James Macdonald, comes complete with the steam, red lights and screeching wheels of passing expresses. But Horváth goes farther, suggesting again and again that in a confusing world, peopled by erratic, bigoted and vindictive people, judgment of any kind is best left to a god who may and may not exist. That’s pretty much the view of the only cautious, balanced character, a local chemist played by David Annen; but he spends much of the evening being mindlessly abused, even threatened with lynching. There are decent performances too from Laura Donnelly as the original mischief-maker and Tom Georgeson as her terminally short-sighted father. And the overall effect is to leave one mourning the loss to the theatre caused when a falling branch killed Horváth, aged just 36, in the Paris of 1938. What a fine mind he had, what an original talent.”