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Pearson and Glover deliver powerhouse performances



Review by David Munro

WILHELM Furtwangler is remembered today, if at all, as a conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and other orchestras which appear on archival recordings.

Whether or not he was a Nazi, or supported Hitler during the Thirties and Forties, is immaterial to the pleasure these recordings give to people today.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise Ronald Harwood bases his play, Taking Sides, upon. Art should override politics and exist for itself alone; the fact it flourishes in a corrupt regime should not bring disrepute on those who practice it.

The play concerns itself with the confrontation of Wilhelm Furtwangler with an American officer, who has been given the task to ascertain whether or not Furtwangler's activities, under the Wehrmacht, preclude him from returning to his profession in the post-war world.

The officer, Major Steve Arnold, played by Neil Pearson, is an insurance claims investigator, who has been given the job as he is unaware of who Furtwangler is and what his reputation was.

He dislikes classical music and refers to him throughout as a bandleader.

He takes a very prejudiced view of Furtwangler's reputation from the outset and has pre-judged him before he sees him as a Nazi Sympathiser, or, at best, a self-seeker who used the Nazis for the promotion of his career.

His system of arriving at the truth, which he brings with him from his peacetime job, is to ask two questions; the first to soften up the victim, and the second being a clincher, in that it postulates something which forces him to betray himself.

He views the problem as black or white, guilty or not guilty, and when he is faced, as he is, by Furtwangler, who refuses to accept that premise and defends himself on the grounds that art has to flourish, no matter what the background, maybe he is unable to comprehend that there may be a middle way.

Basically a thug himself, he resorts to verbal bullying tactics, to break Furtwangler's spirit.

When he ultimately forces him to admit that he should not have stayed in Germany, but practised his art elsewhere, he comes to a realisation of the pressures under which Furtwangler had been put in his effort to keep music alive, in a corrupt society, and accepts he should not be prosecuted for his beliefs.

Neil Pearson's performance emphasised the bigoted philosophy of his character's training, namely that all men were basically fraudulent and it was his mission to expose them, no matter what.

It is not until the end of the play that it transpires that he is driven by hate of the Germans, having been present at the liberation of Auschwitz, the horror of which haunted him and had affected him physically.

This has warped his already narrow nature, until he has become obsessed with bringing those he feels responsible to justice.

He does not shirk the character's very dislikeable traits - manipulative, petty, overbearing and self-conceited - yet, at the same time, makes him a tragic figure, hidebound by his prejudices and unable to show the better side of his nature, that Furtwangler finally brings out in him.

It is a performance of great strength and power, and one which kept me enthralled. He makes the rather commonplace theme (The Prisoner springs to mind in this connection) watchable and convincing. A performance, in short, which is worthy of a West End showing and is one which I will remember for a long time, with pleasure and awe.

Julian Glover, as Furtwangler, also gives a powerful performance as an autocratic man.

One of the minor characters points out that a conductor is, in effect, a dictator over the orchestra, strong in his belief that the ends justify the means, and that it was his duty to keep music alive as an antidote to the Nazi regime.

It is only when Arnold forces him to face up to the fact that, by so doing, he, in fact, condoned the greater excesses perpetrated by that regime, that his façade crumbles and he is forced to admit he should not have been as blinkered as he had been. It is a very moving and touching moment.

The drama between the two men is carried out in the presence of Arnold's secretary, Emmi Straube, played by Ruth Grey, and a young officer seconded to help him in his investigation, Lieutenant David Mills, Tom Harper, both of whom are affected by Arnold's tactics and try to act as a brake on him (and give good performances in so doing).

In addition, there is Helmut Rode, a former member of Furtwangler's Orchestra, who, in order to save his own skin, and in return for a job, feeds Arnold with gossip and rumours to bolster up the case against Furtwangler. John McEnery gives the role the necessary smarmy character and just makes it believable.

Finally, Tanya Ronder, as Tamara Sachs, represents the voice of those Jews saved by Furtwangler through his influence on the Nazis and gives a nervous, hysterical reading of the part, justifying her rejection by Arnold.

The set, by Hayden Griffen, is an office set in a lot of what look liked half opened sandbags and bits of unpainted scenery which is presumably meant to represent the rubble of Berlin.

In fact, it looked as if the stagehands had gone off to lunch and had forgotten to come back and clean up the stage.

Deborah Bruce kept the stage movement going without distracting from the strength and power of the two protagonists.

None of it was really believable, but when a play relies on the acting skills of the two main parts and received blockbuster performances which this one did, does it really matter?

The answer, I would say, is no. When one is in the presence of two good actors, such as you have here, just sit back and enjoy both their performances dispassionately and without taking sides.

Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood. Director Deborah Bruce, Designer Hayden Griffen, Lighting Andy Phillips, Soundscape Matthew Scott. WITH: Neil Pearson, Julian Glover, Ruth Grey, Tom Harper, John McEnery, Tanya Ronder. Produced by Jenny King & Mathew Gale for The Touring Consortium at Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey. Tickets 020 8940 0088.

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