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Taking Sides

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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In theatrical coup that should be relished, Ronald Harwood can boast not one but two plays transferred to the same West End stage. Taking Sides (in a sense the parent as well as companion piece to Collaboration with which it was revived in a Chichester last year), premiered there in 1995.

Again taking a musical artist surviving a Fascist regime, in this instance Wilhelm Furtwängler, renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich, Harwood addresses the uncomfortable responsibilities of artistic integrity when weighed against personal safety. Unlike Collaboration, which explores the creative process itself, Taking Sides asks: if art can be powerful propaganda can it, conversely, make an eloquent protest and, if so, what sort of man could take that stand ?

Set in the devastated Berlin of 1946, Simon Higlett’s blanched design litters a bomb-fractured room with the ghostly suitcases of the dead and the dispossessed. Harwood tightly constructs his material around an interview of Furtwängler (Michael Pennington) by a US interrogator as part of the “de-Nazification process.” Major Arnold (David Horovitch) is determined to expose the great conductor as a Nazi collaborator, remaining unswayed by the maestro’s reputation “musicians and morticians ... all pieces of shit.”

In less skilful hands this structure could lack narrative drive but, unlike Harwood’s stultifying Mahler’s Conversion (covering similar ground), here the playwright keeps the pressure high while, supported by a superb cast, Pennington and Horovitch chart the shallows and quicksands of disclosure and concealment with subtle, often devastating, skill.

The question might remain, on which side does the author stand? Whereas Arnold is a bullying, boorish philistine, Furtwängler appears the epitome of European culture and sophisticated intellect. The audience’s preference seems guided towards the artist who wrested harmony from horror and “comforted” his people. Yet, with all his barking, Arnold is a passionate man, worrying away at the truth, driven by an ever-present sense of outrages against humanity that must never be repeated. Horovitch is particularly affecting as Arnold confronting his own witnessing of the ovens at Belsen after which Furtwängler’s urbanity takes on a sinister edge.

Perhaps Harwood is, in the end, ambivalent and it is this very ambivalence that forces the audience to examine not just ideals but realities. As Arnold’s Jewish lieutenant says “What would you do?”

- Triona Adams

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from July 2008 and this production’s original run at Chichester Festival.

There have been 13 years since this play was premiered at Chichester, but it\'s been dusted down again in conjunction with Harwood\'s new play, Collaboration.

Both plays deal with the role of artists within the Third Reich, in Collaboration\'s case with the relationship between Richard Strauss and his librettist, Stefan Zweig. The older play (both directed by Philip Franks) deals with American interrogation of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the entire Nazi regime.

Harwood says that he called the play Taking Sides specifically because he didn\'t want to be seen as supporting one side or another but he\'s being disingenuous here. When he stacks the boorish, foul-mouthed philistine American officer Major Arnold against the arch-aesthete Furtwängler, what side is an artist going to fall on? Harwood tries to present the worst of the conductor: his seductions, his taste for the high-life and his performances for Nazi leaders, but is faced with two problems, firstly his documented support for Jewish musicians and second, the works themselves.

The real problem that I find with the play is that I’m not sure what Harwood is suggesting Furtwängler should do – resist and be hanged as the conductor puts it. The Jewish assistant to the American interrogator asks himself whether he\'d do any different if put in Furtwängler\'s position – a thought that probably struck everybody in the audience.

The question as to how much great work can excuse adherence to an abhorrent regime has been addressed more thoroughly in such plays as Michael Frayn\'s Copenhagen and Esther Villar\'s Speer. Harwood touches on important themes in this play. But he leaves some big questions unanswered: for example, why did von Karajan, a genuine Nazi sympathiser emerge unscathed from the process and end up as the biggest-selling classical artist of all time?

Having said that, Franks\' cast performs admirably, Michael Pennington\'s Furtwängler treads the line between maintaining his dignity and dogged defence of his work, while David Horovitch\'s Major Arnold, the former insurance fraud investigator, is a dogged interrogator whose tough exterior only cracks when describing the smell of burning flesh from the concentration camps.

Arnold would have us think that conducting an orchestra at Hitler\'s birthday is the moral equivalent of lighting the fires in the crematoria but, despite the title of the play, Harwood doesn\'t really believe it – and despite the performances of the actors, neither do we.

- Maxwell Cooter


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