Tag Archives: Ronald Harwood

Nazi Piece of Work


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.


Simon King and Bill Barry (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)



Awesome Foursome


Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 22nd September, 2017


Ronald Harwood’s play is set firmly in Waiting For God territory, here a retirement home for opera singers and classical musicians.  Among the esoteric inmates we meet eccentric Cicely, rambunctious Wilfred – who seems more at home in a Carry On film than the Royal Opera House – and prissy Reggie who makes pronouncements about Art – when he’s not hurling abuse at the staff who deny him his marmalade fix.  The trio appear to have accepted their fate and are looking forward to performing in a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.  Their peace is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of former diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, Jean.

Will three become four in order to perform a quartet?  Will they be able to recapture at least a glimmer of their former glory?

These are questions posed by the plot but really it’s a play about things we can all recognise: the ageing process, our own mortality, what will be our legacy…

The four singers are presented as flawed individuals but above all as relatable, likeable human beings.  The unseen villains of the piece are the spectres of death and dementia which make their presence known from time to time.  The characters approach old age and infirmity humorously and philosophically but every now and then we glimpse the sting of their predicament.  Kevin Hand brings a lot of fun as the coarse and lecherous Wilfred while Graham Tyrell’s effete and brittle Reggie is a perfect foil.  Juliet Grundy is endearing as the dramatic and lively Cecily, gradually losing her marbles before our very eyes.  Margot McCleary’s haughty, haunted diva has an air of faded royalty.  We like them all immensely and enjoy their company.

Director Estelle Hand balances comedy with poignancy – Harwood never allows us to dwell in mawkishness, touching on themes such as the sexual appetites and histories of the elderly, the necessity of living in the present rather than the past, of making the most of whatever time we might have left.  Hand gets nuanced and well-observed performances from her cast.  Yes, there are a few first-night stumbling over lines, but the tone is spot on.

“Art is meaningless unless it makes you feel,” observes Wilfred in a rare moment of insight.  This entertaining and touching production certainly makes us do that.


A Tale of Atrocities

Malvern Theatres, Wednesday 24th October, 2012

Horrible, self-obsessed couple Julian and Cressida Field sit in their Sussex garden. He is barking business deals into his mobile; she is agonising over an essay for her degree in gender studies. They are also mourning the loss of family pet, Rosie the Cat. Their gardener and general factotum, Roman (or Romka, for short) is also grief-stricken and busies himself with fashioning a marker for the moggy’s grave.

Ronald Harwood’s play gets off to an amusing start. We are drawn to Romka, a man who speaks in a funny accent and looks like he’s stuffed with Werther’s Originals. Suddenly the lives of the Fields are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of detectives from the War Crimes squad of Scotland Yard. Lovely, cuddly Romka is suspected of the murder of 817 Jews in the Ukraine. Who would have thought?

Julian (Adrian Lukis) blows his top, an Englishman averse to having his castle invaded. Cressida (Caroline Langrishe) can’t believe a word of it. They hire a solicitor (Carolyn Backhouse) who though not Jewish herself, is married to one – surely that must work in the old man’s favour!

Romka (Timothy West in a measured, dignified performance) denies everything – he was only the cook, after all. As the play unfolds, Harwood keeps us guessing. It’s perhaps a case of mistaken identity. He was there but took no active part in the massacres… The detectives aren’t really characters but devices who through questioning enable information to come to light. We see testimony given on video by Steven Berkoff in a chilling turn as a cheerful monster and, very powerfully, by Vanessa Redgrave as a surviving eyewitness.

What the play leads up to is an examination of what the holocaust means today. Cressida is dismissive. “It’s ancient history,” she snaps. “Poor old men shouldn’t be hounded”. Further to that, the play warns against the danger of those who seek to deny these most terrible events ever took place. In a shocking outburst, we are shown the true meaning of “the personal is political” – the theme of Cressida’s university essay, and there are parallels drawn between the cat buried in the garden and the hundreds in a mass grave in some Ukrainian wood. The play is a reminder that the holocaust will always be relevant – those who consign it to the past or dismiss it as ‘the Jewish fantasy’ are destined to repeat it.

Director Joe Harmston handles the changing tones very well. The humour and the horrors each get their turn. Of the lot of them, only Romka comes across as a rounded character with warmth and humanity – the point being that it was humans that perpetrated the atrocities not some external ‘evil’ or influence that made them different from the rest of us. West’s performance is for the most part understated, and all the more compelling for it. Lukis and Langrishe are effective as the blowhard couple. Backhouse is attractive as the efficient solicitor who is pushed too far; and James Simmons and Anthony Houghton lend solid support as the investigating officers.

It’s a powerful piece, an important piece, stylishly presented and an intelligent and provocative contribution to the discussion. You emerge thinking more about the issues than the drama – in that sense at least, the drama does its job very well.