Theatre TAKING SIDES Criterion, London
Wednesday 05 July 1995
That uncomfortable comparison is touched on in Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides. The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, under investigation for possible pro-Nazi activities, wonders for a moment whether his American interrogator would be half so hard on Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Eisenstein ("especially Eisenstein"). The point is, surely, not to play off two monstrous regimes - Hitlerism and Stalinism - against each other, rather that most of us seem to have forgiven Prokofiev and Shostakovich for bending the knee to Stalin; they had to in order to survive.
Some would probably take that attitude now with Furtwangler, but there is still a core of resistance. No matter that he used his influence to save Jewish lives (quite a lot of Jewish lives, it seems), or that his decision to stay in Germany was almost certainly the result of a passionate (if somewhat naive) devotion to his country and his art. Praise for the artist still seems to demand some qualification about the human being.
Judging from his play, Harwood has few, if any such reservations. Eventually Furtwangler admits his naivety (followed by a gruelling physical breakdown), and we are allowed glimpses of the humane horror that partly motivates his interrogator, Major Steve Arnold (Michael Pennington).
But on the whole, Arnold is a monster, clearly based on the terrifying prosecutors at Hitler and Stalin's show-trials. Furtwangler is his scapegoat. Is that fair? Would a subtler, less hate-inspired line of questioning have produced something more thought-provoking, more ultimately valuable? The young American lieutenant (Christopher Simon) tries to look beyond crude moral types: a priest, he says, can be corrupt, deceitful, lecherous, "but he can still put God in the mouths of the people."
In itself, it's a strong image, but Taking Sides has actually given us little sight of real, solid corruption in Furtwangler. Major Arnold throws plenty of mud, but almost none of it sticks - except, perhaps, for the accusation of callousness in Furtwangler's treatment of the women his secretary allegedly "procured" for him. So the Nazis were able to use him as their No 1 cultural exhibit - that was part of the price he had to pay as he walked his political "tightrope". Harwood's Furtwangler is seen as artistically determined to preserve that which he believes in, and politically engaged in a very laudable form of damage-limitation. So he wasn't prepared to go to the gallows: would you be?
In the end, though, what really exalts Furtwangler is Daniel Massey's performance. He not only looks and sounds the part, his every move is reminiscent of the Furtwangler one can see in films - the arm-movements flailing but hugely eloquent. He is vulnerable, sensitive, tormented, but also immensely dignified. How can one not believe him?
The historical accuracy may be hard to gauge. But however much we may enjoy demythologising heroic figures today, can we really do without them? Without examples of goodness under appalling pressure, it's all too easy to despair in the face of evil. If Furtwangler was fallible, even "cowardly", that makes his heroism less impossible, less remote and thus more inspiring - just as in the case of Shostakovich. If that is the play's message, it is very timely.
n Box-office: 0171-839 4488)
TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sarah Vine criticises lesbian mother Jack Monroe: 'If she was unsure about her sexuality, she should have taken greater precautions'
- 2 Black Friday 2014: Opening times for Asda, John Lewis, PC World, GAME and Argos
- 3 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 4 Jeremy Hunt: 'I took my children to A&E because I didn't want to wait for GP appointment'
- 5 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove 'stupid' sign suggesting superheroes are 'for boys'
Jurassic World trailer: Chris Pratt stars in full-length trailer with Bryce Dallas and Ty Simpkins
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Zoella: YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg's debut novel set to become overnight bestseller
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs
Naked free runner captured in breathtaking photographs above London's streets
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services