Thursday, August 07, 2014

Sommer 14 - A dance of death

To the Finborough Theatre last night to see Sommer 14 - A Dance of Death, a new play by Rolf Hochhuth. This production is the world premiere of the English version and we saw the second performance (Press Night is tonight).
Hochhuth's presents the build up to World War I and some incidents during the war with Death, brilliantly played by newcomer Dean Bray (center), as an outraged chorus, demanding to know how this mass slaughter, of which he deeply disapproves, has come about. This is a highly effective conceit. The resulting scenes with 30 characters provide fascinating sketches and offer a powerful, though highly ideological, narrative. The performance lasts about 2 hours and is heavily cut from the full text which has even more characters (including Tsar Nicholas II) and would run for 4 hours.

The cast are all very good indeed. Dean Bray is very much the star, apparently just out of drama school, and Edmund Dehn's seasoned professionalism and craft as Emperor Franz Joseph and Admiral von Tirpitz were very fine. Other performances of note were from Kirby Hughes (as Alice Keppel and Margot Stimson) and Sarah-Jayne Butler as a Lusitania Victim.

Hochhuth evidently has an animus against Churchill - understandable for a German born in 1931 - and previously lost a libel action when he suggested that Churchill had Sikorski murdered. Here he suggests that Churchill deliberately engineered the sinking of the Lusitania to drag the US into the war. It's certainly true that the Lusitania was carrying muntions in her holds, and that the Germans explicitly warned in the US Newspapers that they would treat her as a military target. Clearly Churchill would have welcomed any action by the Germans that would drag the US into the war, but this doesn't absolve the Germans of responsibility. And of course it was almost 2 years after the sinking that the US did enter.

Some of the vingnettes are so (melo)dramatic that at first you think Hochhuth must have made them up, but on reflection you realise the reverse. Thus we begin with the shooting of the Editor of Le Figaro by the wife of the Minister of Finance, and later we have the suicide of Clara Haber because her husband Fritz Haber won't give up his work on poison gas as a German weapon (very well played by Andrea Hart and Nick Danan, who also gave a fine performance as Churchill) and the death from a heart attack of the Russian Ambassador to Serbia whilst visiting the German Ambassador there.  On the other hand Hochhuth's (absurd) thesis that the war was engineered by the munitions makers is given dramatic force by a dialogue between a US industrialist and munitions maker and his daughter who is going on the Lusitania to volunteer as a nurse. But the character, Henry Stimson, was in fact a US politician and not an industrialist at all.

But this is not a documentary, it is a very powerful and polemical play. I don't agree with the polemics, but it is a very fine production. Go and see it if you can.

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