Compromised at every turn

Theatre: Taking Sides; Chichester Festival Theatre
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Perfectly convincing as a Russian intellectual (he once impersonated Chekhov), Michael Pennington is a good deal less credible as an American philistine, a role he is required to assume in Taking Sides, the new Ronald Harwood play at Chichester.

With his austere, cerebral, fastidious demeanour, this actor could never be my idea of a man whom Beethoven's Fifth would "bore shitless". But then you could argue that it is a tactical error on Harwood's part to make the character a philistine in the first place.

The drama is set in 1946 in the American zone of occupied Berlin, and Pennington plays Steve Arnold, a US major who is heading an investigation into whether the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler should be brought before a de-Nazification tribunal. Was the maestro, powerfully performed by Daniel Massey, guilty of serving Nazism by remaining in Germany as a conductor through the Hitler years? And if so, was this the product of careerist cynicism or of an idealism that mistakenly assumed that art and politics can be kept separate in a totalitarian regime?

The dialectical tension in the play is greatly weakened by making Furtwangler's opponent a bore who seems to have a chip on his shoulder about artists in general. Arnold has the programmatically suspicious mentality of the claims assessor he is in civilian life and interprets, say, the help Furtwangler gave to a number of Jews as a sort of private insurance policy against future incrimination rather than as evidence of courageous risk-taking.

To nail the conductor, he even stoops to bribing the Philharmonic's former second violinist, a registered party member - which Furtwangler never was - for dirt on his old boss.

All of this is not a good preparation for the climactic moment when Furtwangler declares his conviction that a performance of a musical masterpiece is "a stronger and more vital negation of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words. Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played." At this, Arnold, who has witnessed the horror of the death camps, explodes. But instead of making you feel that here is a man who has had a life-altering experience which has left him with a principled disillusionment about art, the play has painted itself into the corner of presenting Arnold as someone for whom the death camps came as a confirmation of pre-existing prejudices.

A man incapable of responding to the sublimity of music is the weak antithesis, rather than the best antagonist, of someone who has been culpably deaf to everything but musical sublimity.

Performed on a severely expressive set by Eileen Diss, which maroons the office in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin, Harold Pinter's staging of the piece holds the attention throughout, although when Furtwangler criticises the conducting of his rival, Von Karajan, for its exaggerated nuances, you feel that this is a stricture which could also be applied to this over-deliberate production. There is some fine acting in the supporting roles, especially from Geno Lechner as Emmi Straube, a young German agonised by the proceedings, both because she venerates Furtwangler and because she knows her hero-father only joined the plot against Hitler when he realised Germany could not win the war. The subject is fascinating: the play is always, but merely, interesting.

n At Chichester to 3 June, then touring. (Details: 01243 781312)

Paul Taylor