One of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in the theatre: A German Life reviewed

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

It starts at a secretarial college. The stage is occupied by a dignified elderly lady who recalls her pleasure at learning shorthand in the 1920s. She lived in Germany and she took a job at a firm headed by a man named Goldberg. He was Jewish. These unremarkable disclosures are spoken by Brunhilde Pomsel, a woman of high intellect and modest ambitions, who was born in 1911 and died two years ago, aged 106. Her life story was turned into a documentary film, which Christopher Hampton has adapted for the stage.

Pomsel’s words are spoken by Dame Maggie Smith. What makes her fascinating is that she worked for Josef Goebbels and spent the entire war in the propaganda ministry in Berlin. Her acceptance of Nazism is gradual and semi-conscious. Following Hitler’s ascent to power she noticed that the Jewish firm was running short of clients and she was asked to work part-time. Her mornings were free and she found a job taking dictation from a first world war pilot who admired Hitler and had joined the party. She describes her schedule as ‘a Nazi in the morning, a Jew in the afternoon’. That’s the nearest thing the show gets to a contrivance.

One of her friends urged her to join the crowds in Berlin that gathered to celebrate Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. She recalls that she ‘waved’ like everyone else. She means ‘saluted’, of course. Or does she? Her claims are elusive. The prison camps were common knowledge, she says, but she was ignorant of the extermination programme, which came as a shock to her after the war. Even though she worked for Hitler’s chief spin doctor, she declares that she had no more understanding of the Reich than ‘the greengrocer’. More than once she repeats her statements about the extent of her knowledge and this gives the impression, while allowing scope for uncertainty, that her memories are being rewritten at a subconscious level even as she articulates them.

This degree of psychological delicacy is possible because the naturalism of the text and the skill of the performance are perfectly aligned. Hampton has orchestrated his script to replicate all the frailties of human thought and speech. The tidied-away bits are included, the breaks and hesitations, the repetitions, the mid-sentence rethinks, the trackings-back, the re-editings of imperfect phrasings. Dame Maggie honours this meticulously detailed composition by effacing any sense of imposture and by delivering a performance that seems to trickle out of her with the unforced rhythm of the everyday.

This is such a consummate work of art that it doesn’t seem like art at all. It feels like life itself, the real thing, bodying forth on a stage devoted to pretence. Dame Maggie doesn’t act the role. She behaves. She is. This is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Not the least of its miracles is that Dame Maggie, in her 85th year, speaks for two hours without even pausing to take a sip of water from the glass at her elbow.

Josie Rourke rounds off her stewardship of the Donmar with a 1960s classic, Sweet Charity. The show looks strange to a viewer schooled in the modern strictures of egalitarianism. The lyrics of ‘Hey Big Spender’ blatantly objectify men and treat them as malleable halfwits whose money can be conjured from their wallets with a few minutes of sexual flattery. The song is a paean to the predatory self-confidence of the experienced hooker. However the script insists that the lead character, Charity Hope Valentine, is not a prostitute but an escort whose job is to encourage men to buy drinks at the overpriced bar where she works. Her intimacies go no further than heavy flirtation and cheek-to-cheek clinches on the dance floor, where she suffers the indignity of exploratory hands. ‘Who dances?’ says one of the girls. ‘We defend ourselves to music.’ Anne-Marie Duff delivers all the character’s warmth and innocence, as well as a guileful silliness that looks like intelligence in disguise.

Press night was enlivened by Adrian Lester, who did a three-minute turn as a rock’n’roll preacher at the Rhythm of Life church. His electrifying guest spot threatened to take possession of the entire evening, and as he swept off into the wings, chased by thunderous applause, he left a sudden void for Anne-Marie Duff to fill. She gave a pettish sigh and a coy patient smile that seemed to say: ‘Yeah, he was great but he’s gone now and this is my tea party. OK?’ And on we went.

The show crackles with energy and fun, and the supporting cast are terrific. Martin Marquez plays a worn-out movie star like a noble old elephant. And Arthur Darvill (Oscar) delivers a wonderful portrait of tender-hearted goofiness. This show deserves larger premises than the titchy Donmar.

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