Les Damnes: Comedie-Francaise at the Barbican Theatre review *****

Les Damnes (The Dammed)

Comedie-Francaise, Barbican Theatre, 21st June

The Tourist is now so far off the pace in terms of commenting om his cultural adventures that there must surely be a strong case for giving up. Hurrah I hear you cry. Well I am afraid any joy you feel will be short lived. The purpose of this blog is to force me to collect my thoughts on what I see and hear. Any interest from you beyond that is a happy by-product. So time is not, I am sorry to say, of the essence. Which means I am going to soldier on and try to catch up.

However this dilatory attitude does have clear drawbacks. Not least of which is that the Tourist can’t always remember the details of his what he has seen. Take The Damned at the Barbican for example. The abiding single image is of a couple of naked fellas, including the simply brilliant Denis Podalydes as Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, rolling around in beer on the Barbican stage, Tackle out. Drunkenly singing fascist songs. Before being massacred. Filmed and projected then meshed together with previous footage to create the full brownshirt bierkeller effect. This being the so called Night of the Long Knives. A powerful image which is very difficult to shake off.

It wasn’t the only one. It is also impossible to look away from the unsettling scene where the young, and very disturbed, scion of the von Essenbeck family Martin, (a stunning performance from Christophe Montenez), “befriends” his young cousin. This is echoed later on in his encounter with the daughter of a prostitute, though the play holds back from emulating the corresponding scene in the film which is the most brutal signifier of the decay and destruction that the Third Reich represented.

Or the funeral scenes, announced by a factory siren, as members of the clan shuffle off the mortal coil in more or less nasty ways, to be “buried alive” in the coffins lined up stage left. Especially the tarred and feathered Baroness Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre), mother of Martin and widow of the patriarch’s only son who was killed in WWI. Then there is the awkward dinner party, complete with artfully choreographed silver service. All of this takes place on a day-glo orange platform with on stage costume changes and make up stage right and backed by video screens relaying the live camera-work.

Now you theatre luvvies will have probably worked out from all the above that all this wizardry comes courtesy of theatrical mastermind Ivo van Hove. His busy, high concept approach, of which this is the epitome, doesn’t always come off but then again neither doesn’t his stripped back, high tension, “psychological insight” alternative.

This though is a triumph. And what makes it extra special is that it is achieved without the collaboration of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam company, IvH’s own troupe. Mind you if you are going to play away then it would be hard to beat the Comedie-Francaise. Founded in 1680 thanks to a decree of Louis XIV it is the world’s oldest theatre company. It’s had its up and downs but, backed financially by the French state since 1995 and with three venues to showcase its vast repertoire, this is about as good as it gets acting wise. Shame we in the UK have nothing similar.

Not for the first time, when they dreamt this up in 2016 with the company, IvH and designer partner Jan Versweyveld, turned to the Italian film auteur Luchino Visconti in seeking the source for their theatrical adaptation, Specifically his 1969 epic which charts the disintegration of the Essenbeck family, who own a steel company thatcollaborates with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. The reciprocity between state and industry, which forged the autarky that powered the Third Reich war machine, often takes a back seat in dramatic representations of Nazi Germany. Not here though. Yet this is still primarily a terrifying family psychodrama, with an emphasis on the psycho, Greek in scope and savagery.

The story kicks off with a party and then the the murder of the paterfamilias Baron Joachim (Didier Sandre – would have been good to see more of him). On 27th February 1933. The same night as the Reichstag fire. The Baron detests the Nazis. His kids and nephews, with the exception of Herbert Thalmann (Loic Corberry), who runs the company, are less principled, in fact they turn on Herbert and frame him for the murder. He escapes but his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy) and kids are shopped to the Gestapo. Leadership of the company passes to the Baron’s thuggish nephew Konstantin (see above) an SA officer ahead of his own bookish son Gunther (Clement Hervieu-Leger) and his deviant nephew, the aforementioned Martin. Meanwhile the firm’s fixer, Friederich Bruckmann (Guillaume Gallienne), makes his bid for control egged on by his lover Baroness Sophie, despite not being a family member and coming from an lowly background. He is initially aided by her cousin Wolf von Aschenbach (Eric Genovese) who happens to be a high ranking SS officer and all round c*nt. It is he who drives the company into the arms of the Nazi Party. To realise his ambitions Fred shoots the drunken Konstantin during the SS coup against the SA in 1934 the infamous Night of the Long Knives. Wolf however turns on him denouncing him as a traitor to the Nazi cause. Herbert returns for his exile and reveals that wife Elisabeth died in the Dachau concentration camp and hands himself over to the Gestapo to save his kids. Aschenbach and the now certifiable Martin who has also joined the SS cook up a deal to oust Friedrich and Sophie from control of the firm. Martin shags his Mummy but allows Friedrich to marry her as long as they then commit suicide. Marty finally hands the firm over to his beloved Party. The End.

See what I mean. Uber nasty and very Greek. Or maybe twisted Racine is a more apposite label. Visconti’s film is tiled La caduta degli dei in Italian, which translates as The Fall of the Gods. In German then Gotterdammerung, the actual subtitle, this conjuring up an OTT Wagnerian vibe. The film doesn’t stint on sets, costumes or symbolism. Though it does on lighting and linear storytelling. And IvH and his dramaturg Bart Van den Eyede, who also worked on Roman Tragedies, have taken their lead from this deliberately mannered approach. Now I can understand why some might recoil at this operatic approach, chock full of modern European theatre tropes, and at the less than subtle allusions to our own troubled times. Notably when the house lights go up after each death and a camera is trained on the audience to remind us of our complicity if we just stand by. Me I don’t mind. This offers theatrical spectacle by the bucket load, a cast of cracking deplorable characters for this superb company to sink their teeth in to and if the moral of such immorality is overwrought, well why not? The lessons of history require magnification and repetition if our vicious species is ever to learn. And for once, in contrast to IvH’s Obsession or his Bergman homages, this is definitely an improvement on the film.

The two unbroken hours passed by in a heartbeat which is not something the Tourist can always say. OK so there were moments when the images distracted a little from the telling of the story and a modicum of effort and knowledge of relevant German history was required to keep up. Tal Yarden’s video, Eric Sleichim’s woodwind and brass driven score, (which makes ironically liberal use of Rammstein’s militaristic thudding NDH grooves) and JV’s lighting don’t hold back but this suits both story and space. And you either love or hate sur-titles.

I do wonder whether the whole would have been quite the equal of the sum of its parts without this extraordinary cast. As with ITA it is thrilling to see and hear actors of the quality, both as individuals but, more than this, as a company. They join initially as pensionnaires, paid a wage, before graduating to societaires, with a stake in the company’s profits. Just a brilliant structure. There have only been 533 since 1680. The longest tenured on the stage here, Sylvia Berge, had the smallest part, the least experienced, still a pensionnaire, Christoph Montenez, had the “best” part as Martin. None of that “star” billing stuff that debilitates West End theatre. And remember all this admiration from the Tourist for a play delivered in a language that he cannot speak. Acting isn’t just the words folks.

A German Life at the Bridge Theatre review ****

A German Life

Bridge Theatre, 15th April 2019

It is pretty easy when you spend as much time consuming theatre as the Tourist to go full on luvvie and get well carried away with the “genius” of playwrights, directors, creatives and, especially, actors. So you would probably be wise to ignore all of what follows and the gushing that generally ensues whenever acting royalty treads the boards. But, just for once, this was the real deal.

I see, for example, in today’s Guardian that there is a ranked list of Dame Judi Dench’s film roles. It’s pretty thin pickings, with the exception of some big screen Shakespeare, Iris, Philomena and, especially, Notes on a Scandal. This is not because Dame JD is a poor actress. Nonsense. It is because most films are rubbish. But when a proper text is given to her she is peerless. Which, for anyone who has ever seen her on stage, should be self-evident. I only know her from the recent collaborations with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage, an RSC Mother Courage, Madame de Sade and the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose. Too young and too stupid to have seen her in any major Shakespeare roles unfortunately.

Mind you I had never seen, until now, Dame Maggie Smith, on stage. Never saw The Lady in the Van at the NT or in the West End. Or earlier West End triumphs like Albee’s Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, or David Hare’s The Breath of Life. All in the fallow period for the Tourist’s theatre going. So it’s just the film and telly stuff. More often than not DMS stamps her mark on these screen roles so completely that you cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Sardonic, trenchant, caustic, acerbic, take your pick of adjectives, you know what I mean. Yet always something far more profound, revealing and empathetic beyond the natural comic timing.

So I wasn’t going to miss this. Whatever it was. Even if she had read out the telephone directory. As it happens a play based on the testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, was always going to be right up my street. Ms Pomsel died in 2017, aged 106, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, having given a series of interviews, aged 102, that formed the basis for a documentary film A German Life, produced and directed by Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. This script in turn formed the basis for a subsequent biography and for Christopher’s Hampton’s translation and adaptation for the Bridge stage.

Ms Pomsel had a relatively unremarkable upbringing, despite the remarkable times, as a child in WWI and in 1920s Germany, and went to work as a stenographer in the late 1920’s for a Jewish lawyer and, soon after, simultaneously, for a right wing insurance broker. In 1933 she moved to a a job in the news department of the Third Reich’s broadcasting department, (having taken up Nazi Party membership), and eventually was posted in 1942 to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment where she was a shorthand writer. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, and Goebbels’s suicide, she was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD for 5 years in various concentration camps, escaping to West Germany after her release and working for state broadcasters until her retirement, living in Munich.

Now it is pretty easy to see why the German documentary makers alighted on Brunhilde Pomsel. Yes, her proximity to Goebbels, but also the clarity and honesty of her recollection. Her apparent apolitical stance, she joined the party to get the job and couldn’t quite remember if she voted for the Nazis or the DNVP (the Nationalist party) in the early 1930s, but liked the colours and the meetings, and refusal, even in retrospect to utterly condemn the system she found herself at the heart of, made her a more authentic commentator on what happened to Germany than many others with more pointed conviction in their stories. Her testimony is not concerned with her own personal guilt or innocence and can therefore more credibly get to the heart of the question: what would you have done differently in the same situation?

I am not sure if Mr Hampton had Maggie Smith in mind when he began the process of translating and editing the material from the documentary, though I gather she had plenty of input to the final outcome. I assume that an unbroken monologue, in line with the film, was the only feasible option but I would guess again that Mr Hampton, and the creative team here, Jonathan Kent as director, Anna Fleischle (designer), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound), must have had some trepidation at presenting a talking head for near two hours. The set, a naturalistic representation of Ms Pomsel’s apartment, moves gradually towards the front of the thrust stage, Mr Clark’s lighting subtly rings changes and there are a handful of crucial sound interventions, (not least of which is subtle amplification – the Bridge is a brilliant space but not intimate), but otherwise it is just DMS sat in chair.

They shouldn’t have worried (in fact they probably didn’t). From the opening knowing aside “let’s see how this goes”, through Ms Pomsel’s strict childhood, her delight in Weimar Berlin society, the reckoning of Kristallnacht, the fear in Hitler’s bunker, disgust at the Soviets and the search for her Jewish friend post-war (she died in a camp in 1943), DMS is, and this is no exaggeration, spell-binding. You don’t hear and see a German centenarian on stage, it’s still DMS, but this is the vivid, animated story of a real person, conveyed in an entirely naturalistic way, with just hesitant voice, mobile hands and febrile face. Leaving you ample opportunity, as the details build, to reflect on the core question posed above. For it seems to me that any guilt than Ms Pomsel may have carried was actually more the guilt at not feeling guilt, despite all that had happened, and not the guilt of complicity, ignorance or indifference. The banality that lies behind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil personified. The contradictions about what she did and didn’t know about the concentration camps, or more actually cared to remember about what she knew, especially when contrasted with her own experience in these same camps after the war, are the most pointed passages of testimony and play. “We didn’t want to know about them, we really didn’t”.

This I suppose is why this “evil” is a constant in human history. It’s not lack of resistance or evasive denial that lets this continue. Just “ordinary” people not understanding or caring enough to stop it. This story will never be irrelevant.

I would assume that this will proved to be Dame Maggie’s stage swan song. If so it is a remarkable demonstration of her skill. But beyond that this is a vital story. Powerfully told. It looks like Blackbox Film and Media, the documentary makers, have told, and are telling, other such vital stories. I need to find out more. Not least of which is to see the A German Life documentary. As should you perhaps given the play is sold out.

The Remains of the Day at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre review *****

The Remains of the Day

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 13th April 2019

Right all you good citizens of Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. There is still time for you to book tickets to see this excellent adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel The Remains of the Day. A very well crafted script by Barney Norris, (just the fellow to write pensive studies of “Englishness” based on his previous work), in an excellent production from one of our premier touring companies Out of Joint, thoughtfully directed by Christopher Haydon, (latterly of the Gate Theatre), with a pair of sparkling central performances from Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack.

Now the Tourist has never been much good at reading. Nothing ever seems to sink in without repeated exposure. Especially with fiction. And especially with fiction he read in his youth. A vague recollection of the big picture, a few specific episodes and a general “I like that author”. Not like the SO who can trot out plot, character, meaning, style, context, like an A* student even for things she read decades ago. Maybe this low level intimidation is what stops the Tourist picking up a book except when on hols. That and spending too much time at the theatre and writing this stupid f*cking blog.

Anyway you probably. like the Tourist. know this work more from the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as Stevens and Kenton, both quietly upstaged by Peter Vaughan as Stevens Senior. Nominated for 8 Oscars, won none. Mind you that was the year the Academy rewarded Spielberg for Schindler’s List. Fair dos. I see that one Harold Pinter wrote an original screenplay for the film when Mike Nichols was slated to direct. Bits of Harold’s work made it to the end but he removed himself from the credits. Might have been a very different film with him and Mr Nichols in the driving seat.

Instead I remember the central, unrequited, relationship between the stiff Hopkins and the droll Thompson, the look and feel of the thing, (Merchant-Ivory being allowed to film in any toff’s house at the time such was their fame), and the almost elegiac take on the history under examination, the 1950’s and the 1930’s. Yes the politics were there but not as sharply delineated as in this play. Class, deference, knowing one’s place, belief in the wisdom of the elite, are common to both treatments but I was far more struck in this treatment by the desire of many in the aristocratic class in the 1930’s to broker a deal with Hitler, to appease, than I was in the film. And specifically the reasons why, the guilt at having inflicted so much economic misery on Germany post First World War, as well as the memory of the human carnage of that war, and, of course their anti-semitism, which motivated them to pursue this course.

It may just be that, like my reading of the book, I just don’t remember the film very well. Which is salient given that The Remains of the Day is a memory book/film/play. Or maybe more specifically a memory of a history, personal and political, book/film/play. To solve the “problem” of butler Stevens remembering the events at Darlington Hall in the run up to the Second World War, (as he undertakes the road trip in 1958 to pay the visit to the ex-housekeeper, Miss Kenton, prompted by her letter), the film makes generous use of flashbacks. And a cast of thousands.

Well maybe not quite but tons of extras and actors of the calibre of James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale and Tim Pigott-Smith to fill all the named characters, (trust me, a lot of people found their way to Darlington Hall). Even the minor parts are filled by the likes of Ben Chaplin, Patrick Godfrey, Peter Eyre, Pip Torrens and, the go-to actor for Germans in British films, Wolf Kahler. Blimey even a young Lena Headey, Cersei in you know what, gets a look in. Basically if you could do plummy or gor-blimey, and you weren’t engaged elsewhere, you got a part in the film.

No such technology of budget for Out of Joint and Messrs Haydon and Norris. So a fair bit of character pruning, some adroit exposition to incorporate those written out, and extensive doubling. But this is not just any old “exit Act 1, turn up as someone else in Act 2 with new costume and wig” stagecraft. This is seamlessly executed, on stage choreography, a hat, a coat, a pipe, to turn a cast the cast of 8 into the staff and guests of pre war Darlington Hall and the locals Stevens meets on his pint-sized odyssey of self-discovery. This means that the ghosts of the past are always present. Very clever and very easy to follow.

Stevens devotion to duty even in the face of the shocking demand by Lord Darlington to sack the two Jewish maids, Kenton teasing Stevens about his book, Stevens carrying on his duties even as his father dies and Mme Dupont, (a gender change to accommodate the casting pyrotechnics), whinges about her feet, Reginald’s increasing awareness of what his godfather is up to, Stevens disowning the past in his conversations with Dr Carlisle, the mocking Stevens is forced to undergo from “Sir David” the composite collaborator with Lord D, the radical conservatism, or conservative radicalism, espoused by everyman Morgan in the pub and, of course, the extraordinarily moving scenes between Kenton, or Mrs Benn later on, and Stevens, as the happiness they might might have had slips through their fingers. You flipping noodle Stevens.

All of these scenes are memorable, providing plenty of minor key drama, but the best things about the play are the performances of Mr Boxer and Ms Cusack. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that for me, and remember this is based on my faulty memory, they capture the essence of Stevens and Kenton more that Hopkins and Thompson in the film. The ten year age gap between these actors seems more convincing than the 20 years of the film. Mr Boxer seems to me to bring out more of the interior life of Stevens, the way he buries the emotions that he plainly has in the cause of maintaining the dignified exterior he believes is required of him, the way he is puzzled by, but still craves, Miss Kenton’s attention. Ms Cusack seems more playful as Kenton, holding back the regret until the very end. the structure of the play lends more prominence to the conversations in the pub and the way this changes Stevens’s perspective.

The directness of the political dilemma, and its flawed morality, is far more pointed here than in the film. And the reliability of Steven’s recollection is more nuanced as in the book, (yes I took a quick peep again whilst writing this). In fact generally Mr Norris seems to capture the essence of the book in a, er, more reliable way that the period-drama aesthetic of the film does.

The rest of the cast step up. Miles Richardson captures the naivety, in life as well as politics, of Lord Darlington and the middle class bonhomie of Dr Carlisle. Sadie Shimmin offers us an uncomplicated pub host in Mrs Taylor alongside the hauteur of fascist sympathiser Mme Dupont. Edward Franklin warms to his task as the bespectacled, conscientious godson Reginald, (drawn from the film not the book), Patrick Toomey is the arrogant American politician Lewis (and, I think Farraday, Steven’s current employer) and Pip Donaghy marks out Stevens Senior decline. Top marks to Stephen Critchlow though as he he shifts from Morgan to the real “villain” of the piece the anti-semitic Sir David.

I see a lot of plays but this is one of the more satisfying I have seen so far this year. “Knowing” the content helps of course, and, from a personal geographical perspective a hop to Guildford, and the fine design and accumulated history of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, was no inconvenience. I get that Out of Joint rightly values its touring credentials and I am grateful to the Royal and Derngate, (on my list to visit), and the Oxford Playhouse for co-commissioning Barney Norris’s script. But I am stunned that this hasn’t secured, as far as I know, secured a berth in London.

The familiar story, the quality of the acting, the script and the production, (Lily Arnold’s set is another stand-out as is Elena Pena’s sound design), the themes it explores and their contemporary echoes – the dangers of passivity and nostalgia – all would suggest to me that this would pack them in in a mid sized West End venue. There is plenty for the customary theatre demographic to enjoy, (they certainly did on this Saturday afternoon), but, with the right tone, I reckon some younger folk could be persuaded. I know that Out of Joint’s last major production, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, had a false start, understandably, before eventually gathering plaudits as the Royal Court but most of the rest of their historical efforts have popped up in the capital. This, whilst still posing some thorny questions, looks to be a far more commercial proposition than many of those predecessors.

Barney Norris plainly says that “the play must be unlike the book or the film or it shouldn’t exist” in the programme. Fair dos. But, whilst its structure and perspective match his manifesto, there is more than enough of both earlier manifestations to justify your attendance should you know them.

Over to you nice people at ATG.