Stage appearances don’t get much more sensational than this: Maggie Smith, aged 84, making her first theatre appearance for 12 years. The legendary actor, recognised worldwide after her roles in the Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey, is starring in Christopher Hampton’s new one-woman play A German Life at the Bridge Theatre.
Ex-Almeida helmsman Jonathan Kent, whose last show was The Height of the Storm in the West End, directs for the first time at the Bridge Theatre. His production runs until May 11, following a string of slack stagings at Nick Hytner’s Tower Bridge venue.
A German Life was crafted by Hampton from a documentary interview with Brunhilde Pomsel, a German woman who was secretary to the Nazi minister for propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who died in 2017 aged 106.
Is Hampton’s one-hander a success for at Hytner’s 18-month-old theatre? Does Kent get to grips with the South Bank space? And does Smith still have what it takes after her 12-year absence from the stage? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Hampton’s play is relatively straightforward: a 90-minute adaptation of a real-life interview with Pomsel, in which she recalls her early life, and her time working under Goebbels during the Holocaust and the Second World War.
It is “a compelling history lesson” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★), “an alarm call” according to Matt Trueman (Variety), and “an intimate view of the dangers of political complacency” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★).
‘Hampton’s script delivers a slow unfolding of the truth, in which every line, innocent in itself, implicates Pomsel, absolves her, or damns her’
“We see an old lady recounting, in wandering fragments, sundry details of her life, but what we hear is terrifying,” describes Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★). “The way an ordinary person slips by degrees into accepting a fascist regime; the way the machinery of evil exploits apparent virtues.”
“It’s a story about denial and survival, complicity and complexity,” writes Mark Shenton (London Theatre,★★★★★), while Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) describes how “Hampton’s script delivers a slow unfolding of the truth, in which every line, innocent in itself, implicates Pomsel, absolves her, or damns her.”
“She throws the question of moral responsibility back out into the ether,” observes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage,★★★★). “What would you do in her situation? How much would you remember? How willing would you be to take a stand? Her words have a chilling power and an uncomfortable resonance for today.”
“To say there are contemporary political situations the play might relate to is an understatement, but A German Life doesn’t strain desperately for relevance because it doesn’t need to,” concludes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out,★★★★). “The forces of right-wing populism are on the march again and the facts are eloquent enough. Maggie Smith has used what is surely her final stage role to try and tell us something. We should listen.”
Smith’s last stage role – the one many thought would be her last – was in 2007, when she starred in the London premiere of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque in the West End. 12 years, and several wildly successful screen roles later, she’s back. And, according to the critics, she’s brilliant.
“This is no barnstorming performance,” emphasises Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), praising her for capturing “just the right verbal hesitancy and moral evasiveness”, while Andrzej Lukowski writes that “it is a totally brilliant performance, just don’t expect fireworks”. It is, says Allfree, a performance of “quiet but formiddable clarity”.
“It’s a performance of ripe ambiguity, not a phrase misjudged, every movement contributing – the way she fiddles, sheepishly, with her necklace, or clamps her hands round her face in an anguished echo of Munch,” observes Cavendish, while Treneman calls it “a quiet tour-de-force” and Hitchings admires how “she holds the audience in the palm of her hand”.
‘If this is her stage swansong, what a profound, dignified, thought-provoking final curtain’
“It is an astonishing thing to see Maggie Smith hold an audience in the palm of her hand,” chimes Crompton. “Alone on stage for one hour and 45 minutes, never leaving her chair, speaking quietly and without any overly dramatic emphasis, she brings a woman and a world to life. You lean forward to hold the nuance and meaning of what she is saying. And what you hear is terrifying.”
“To hold the attention of a 900-seat theatre such as the Bridge single-handed for 100 minutes is quite something,” writes Hemming. “To do so simply through storytelling, without ever moving from a chair, is even more remarkable.”
“Smith’s claim to widespread fame rests on myriad films, the Harry Potter franchise, Downton,” concludes Cavendish. “But it’s nights like this that explain why she’s one of the greats. If this is her stage swansong, what a profound, dignified, thought-provoking final curtain.”
A German Life is directed by Jonathan Kent, whose recent hits include The Height of the Storm, Young Chekhov, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Gypsy, and is designed by the prolific Anna Fleischle.
Most critics praise the restraint of the production – for the entire duration of the show, Smith sits in a simple nursing home-kitchen set, which slowly drifts into darkness as the evening progresses, shrouding her in gloom.
“Kent has directed a production of absolute simplicity, dispensing with the documentary footage suggested in the text, and instead concentrating on Smith,” lauds Crompton, while Lukowski observes how “Kent’s hyper-naturalistic production feels less like a contrived work of drama, more like watching Pomsel’s testimony in some sort of unnaturally vivid translation”.
The whole staging is “canny” according to Cavendish, “sensitive” for Hitchings, “subtle and effective” for Bano, and “deft” for Hemming.
Oh yes, it’s good. Great, in fact. With five-star reviews from the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, London Theatre and the Arts Desk, and four-star ratings everywhere else, this is undoubtedly the best-reviewed show of the Bridge Theatre’s short existence. Nick Hytner can breathe a sigh of relief.
Christopher Hampton’s artfully filleted play is thought-provoking and gripping, Jonathan Kent’s production is simple but subtle, and Maggie Smith, returning to the stage after more than a decade, gives a performance of understated excellence. She’s still got it at 84.