Chichester, under its artistic director Jonathan Church, has become theatrically hip and happening. Apart from the dud of the Cherry Orchard, this season is one of its best yet – a mix of cleverly chosen, powerfully reappraised musicals (Funny Girl, The Music Man), and innovative, challenging fare such as Rupert Goold's wonderful transposition of Six Characters in Search of an Author to the morally queasy world of TV docudrama, which transfers to the West End in September.
I hope an extended life will also be granted to the double bill of Ronald Harwood plays now in rep. Taking Sides was first seen here in 1995. Harwood has now written a companion piece, Collaboration. Directed by Philip Franks in a manner that gives them the forensic concentration of courtroom drama, the plays are acutely thought-provoking.
Both pieces address the vexed question of the role of art and the artist in totalitarian regimes. Has art the right to try to seal itself off? Should the artist feign co-operation to preserve the values embodied in their work for a post-totalitarian future? Or is the very attempt so compromising as to be self-defeating?
In a tour de force, Michael Pennington pulls off a mighty double. He exudes patrician, injured hauteur as the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who remained in Germany under Hitler and undergoes post-war interrogation in Taking Sides. In Collaboration, he reappears as Richard Strauss, who touched pitch to safeguard his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Taking Sides is the livelier drama, but with its loaded title (evoking both Strauss's work with the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, and his tricky relationship with Nazism) Collaboration is the subtler, more tragic piece. Taking Sides feels rigged in Furt-wängler's favour. Harwood makes the American major conducting the investigation conveniently boorish, but it's a powerful performance by David Horovitch, who also excels, in Collaboration, as Zweig – driven to joint suicide with his wife in 1942. Whether that makes him more, or less, tragic than Strauss is one of many moot points raised by these fascinating plays.
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