Two companion plays by Ronald Harwood about icons of culture that the Nazis could ill afford to lose identify the work of Germany’s best contemporary composer, Richard Strauss, with Stefan Zweig, his Jewish librettist in Collaboration, and the initial de-Nazification enquiry of arguably their best conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, in Taking Sides. Both musicians were totally immersed in their art and had no time for politics, believing – in a very naive way – that their music would transcend tyranny.
It is now 13 years since Taking Sides was premiered at Chichester and Michael Pennington has changed roles from investigator to conductor, making Furtwangler a man who is strong but with a touch of arrogance that does not allow him to fully understand the situation. This is a splendid play and David Horovitch and Martin Hutson are the army investigators, philistinism balanced by culture. Pip Donaghy plays Helmuth Roth with credibility and Melanie Jessup and Sophie Roberts provide full support.
Collaboration is a new play and has some lack of balance. Two-thirds of a short Act I are spent in setting the situation of Richard Strauss developing his relationship with Zweig, only for Nazi policies to make further collaboration impossible – particularly as Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law and half-Jewish grandchildren.
Michael Pennington plays a very self-centred and totally insulated and isolated Strauss with conviction, and Isla Blair provides his very feisty wife, Pauline. Stefan Zweig was convincingly played as one with a much greater approach to reality, but also deep neurosis, by David Horovitch.
Both plays were directed by Philip Franks at a good pace.