Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Andrew Tomlinson as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Phil Nooney as Major Arnold

Pictures: Emily White

Taking Sides

Highbury Theatre Centre


Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the rock stars of his age, the greatest orchestral conductor of his, or indeed any generation. A man able to lift symphonies and operas to new heights with his lyrical and emotional interpretations.

Perhaps these days only the most dedicated classical music buff will know the name but in the 1930s through to his death in 1954 he was one of the most, famous and influential conductors around.

But along with his fame came controversy as Hitler came to power. It was a difficult time - read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the inspiration for Cabaret, to see its corrosive effect on ordinary people.

Many leading Jewish, and indeed non-Jewish musicians and artists could see the writing on the wall and fled Germany while they could. Furtwängler was the most famous but also the leading conductor to stay. He was the principal conductor of The Berlin Philharmonic, one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world, and he was an international star.

Furtwängler made no secret of his opposition to anti-Semitism, speaking out against it and openly criticising Hitler and the Nazi regime. He pleaded the case of Jewish musicians and helped many Jews and others escape. It would have been a death sentence for lesser men, but the fame of Furtwängler, and the protection of Joseph Goebbels, saved him.

He might have been a nuisance, even a thorn in the Nazi side but Goebbels, who had no liking for him at all, was the ultimate spin doctor, and he saw him, or at least toleration of him, as valuable propaganda for world opinion. And it is that question of how much his lasting and tolerated presence benefited the international prestige of Nazi Germany which has been long debated.

Ronald Harwood’s play takes us to 1946 and the American denazification hearings in Berlin. It was part of a process to ensure former Nazis could not hold positions of power or influence. As far as musicians were concerned the level of involvement with the Nazis decided whether you had a permit to work or not.

In Furtwängler's case, he was guilty, an out and out Nazi, a big mate of Adolf and his gang - at least according to ex-insurance claims investigator Major Steve Arnold in charge of the investigation. All that was lacking was any hint of evidence against what the man he sneeringly referred to as the bandleader.

Phil Nooney gives us a major who has a permanent seething anger, hates classical music and Beethoven, doesn’t seem that keen on Germans and has all the forensic aplomb of a whole stampede of bulls in a china shop. His character is one dimensional and thoroughly unlikable

His secretary is Emmi Straube, played by Isabella Bird. Her father is a sort of latter day hero, executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. She fusses around never quite sure about the moods and outbursts of the major in a well balanced performance as the “good German”.


Lt David Wills, played by Leighton Coulson, Emmi Straube, played by Isabella Bird, Tamara Sacks played by Katie Ho and Phil Nooney as Major Arnold


His new assistant is Lt David Wills, a German born Jew brought up in America in another fine performance from Leighton Coulson, who excelled as Mickey in the recent Blood Brothers. Wills is an idealist, inspired as a child by a concert conducted by Furtwängler, and he has the inconvenience, as far as Arnold is concerned, of showing respect to the conductor, and even worse, relying on actual evidence, of which there is none, rather than mere prejudice.

Into the sparse office pass Helmuth Rode, the Berlin Philharmonic second violin. He freely admits he would never have even made it to an audition had it not been for the banishment of Jewish musicians.

Jonathan Owen gives him a desperate to please air. He worships his former boss, yet, when offered the chance to work again in return for a little telling information, he is willing to drop his hero in it with rumours and title tattle. There is no hard evidence, no smoking gun, but it is enough to earn him a brown coat and a menial job as a security man.

Then there is Tamara Sachs, played convincingly by Katie Ho, a grieving widow with her tales of Furtwängler saving Jews, which is less than delight to the ears of Arnold. She is sent away and quietly forgotten.

And finally, we have the impressive sight of Furtwängler himself, played by Andrew Tomlinson. This is a man used to being the star and does not take kindly to being lectured by a man he sees, quite understandably, as a cultural and intellectual moron.

While the famed conductor argues on the emotions and passion of art lifting the soul of man Arnold cannot get past his life of trying to avoid paying out on insurance claims. Everyone is a liar in his eyes and he always has the one question none of them can answer. It’s hardly mastermind, different each time, just a vague meandering query with no straight answer, and no straight answer means guilt in the Arnold book of logic.

We learn Arnold was at the liberation of a concentration camp. Whether that coloured his view or he is naturally a permanently ill-tempered philistine with not just a chip but a whole bag of spuds on his shoulder, we are never sure.

It is an interesting play, based in part on the diaries Furtwängler kept about his interrogation. In the end no evidence was found against him and he was to resume his career.

The question the play asks, and one which followed Furtwängler until his death, was whether his love for his country and his art, both suffering under a heinous regime, justified staying and performing in Nazi Germany. Despite his saving of many Jews was he collaborating merely by default or showing an innocent naivety by putting the defence of his art above the world of politics.

The set, from director Alison Cahill along with Malcolm Robertshaw and Nicki White, is a simple box of a 1940’s functional office with a missing rear wall showing a limp American flag and what looks like a run down street scene in  the ruins of a bombed Berlin. It effectively sets the scene.

The problem on opening night though was pace. This is a play which depends entirely on dialogue, on verbal probing and jousting, with moments of rapid fire exchanges and telling, nervous pauses.

Instead, it lurched along. First night nerves or whatever the reason meant any hint of a flow was quickly lost, and sadly, by the second act the prompt was taking a leading role with the pauses becoming telling for the wrong reason.

It was great pity as the play has all the potential and, indeed, the cast to be a fine drama and no doubt with the first night out of the way, the production will regroup and it will now settle down to be the excellent play it was always intended to be. To 28-10-23

Roger Clarke


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