Crescent Theatre, Saturday 30th March, 2019
Ronald Harwood’s 2008 play has, sadly, gained in relevance since its original appearance. Set mainly in the 1930s, the play charts the working relationship and friendship between top composer Richard Strauss and writer Stefan Zweig whom Strauss enlists as a librettist. All goes well. The men establish a rapport but, in the background, the rise of overt animosity toward the Jews eventually encroaches on proceedings.
The first act is a rather gentle comedy, offering insights into the creative process, but things take a much darker turn after the interval, with the interference of the Nazis, represented here by Herr Hinkel.
Bill Barry is positively avuncular as Strauss, with Simon King’s Zweig as a more neurotic contrast. Both are at their strongest when speaking with passion, about music, about principles, and Barry’s greatest moment (and the play’s sucker punch) comes right at the end when Strauss gives testimony to a denazification board (Spoiler: The Nazis lost the war). Skye Witney comes into her own as Strauss’s spouse, putting the arrogant Hinkel in his place, while Emilia Harrild as Zweig’s secretary/main squeeze Lotte impresses as she recounts a violent assault. At other times, the action is a little stiff. When pleasantries are exchanged, the characters aren’t quite as convincing, and there are times when the blocking seems off with actors in entirely the wrong place for optimal staging. I’m guessing this is because it’s opening night and points still need tightening up.
There is an effective cameo from Alan Bull as hotel intendant Paul Adolph. As the arrogant, coldly efficient Herr Hinkel, the excellent Jack Hobbis is utterly chilling, exuding an air of evil through a thin veneer of civility, and we are reminded how this pernicious ideology insinuates itself into the world, before imposing its will and causing all sorts of problems – to make an understatement.
Harwood’s writing is always enjoyable and this is no exception. Alan K Marshall’s production hits all the high notes, with the dramatic moments powerfully presented, but like Zweig’s struggles with recitative, it’s the linking bits, the casual conversations, that require more consideration.
The play is a stark reminder to nip the Far Right in the bud before it can take hold. It never ends well.
A worthwhile production that will make you smile, laugh, think and, ultimately, feel.