>TAKING SIDES by The Stage Club

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 15 apr 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>A BEAUTIFUL SYMPHONY - BUT A LITTLE LOUDER, PLEASE!

Ronald's Harwood's thought-provoking script is well-served by the recent Stage Club production; Harwood's interpretation of the true case of German composer Wilhelm Furtwangler being investigated for collusion with the Nazis because of his continued artistic success during Hitler's reign - a period in which Furtwangler suspiciously stayed on in Germany unlike most of his peers - raises a lot of questions and it is to the credit of all involved that they are never side-stepped or too easily answered. In fact, they are not answered at all. The play presents both the arguments for and against Furtwangler and leaves it to the audience to make their own minds up: Was Furtwangler a Nazi because he took advantage of the favours bestowed upon him? To what extent can his crime be mitigated by his subsequent attempts to help the Jews?

And is it a crime at all if everyone of us would have done the same thing in his shoes? If the world is collapsing around you, and someone offers you a lifeline, would you not simply take it? After all, as Furtwangler points out, the favours he allowed himself to take from the Nazis did not themselves make the regime any stronger or more powerful; if anything, they put him in a position to help others. Major Arnold, the investigating officer, on the other hand, focuses on the "favours", the unfair privileges Furtwangler received in the first place.

>>'There is a sense of every last movement being choreographed; at one point, when Willis moves towards Furtwangler, I expected him to lead him in a waltz'

And so, till the end, the debate remains at a stalemate because Harwood recognizes this is a moral dilemma which cannot be really be answered. None of us can say for certain how we would react unless we were in the exact same extraordinary position; and then, each would react differently.

It is indeed appropriate, as director Anglea Noller alludes to in her notes, that Harwood's script about the life of a composer is itself similar to a classical symphony - there is certainly a sense of the play building up slowly to a passionate and deeply poetic crescendo. Much of the coda's impact and twist-upon-twist is, indeed, heightened and made unforgettably effective, by the stillness and distinct lack of histrionics that lead the entire play into this final confrontation between Furtwangler and Arnold; certainly, Noller is holding to the maxim that less is more.

However, sometimes she takes this too far. Throughout the first half of the play, there is a sense of every last movement being choreographed; at one point, when Lieutenant Willis moves towards Furtwangler, I expected him to take the latter by the hand and lead him in a waltz. An early fight scene, for example, looked unrealistic because the actors were too careful with one another. Whether it is the striking of a hand upon the table in anger or voices raised in quarrel, everything is strangely muted and mannered to the point that the audience feels almost disengaged after a while, constantly awaiting a certain punch that never comes. It is as if everything is happening on a brilliantly smooth surface beautifully - but where is the crack that gives the drama its edge? That comes only at the end, and although brilliantly done, one wonders if it comes too late. By then there have been too many jokes that have not been tapped into for their full potential, too much emotion and feeling that could have been brought to the surface with dazzling effect but instead left unexploited. A case of subtlety taken possibly a step too far.

Along with able support from Elena Ryan as Arnold's secretary, Daniel Toyne and Derek Graham turn in memorable performances as Furtwangler and Arnold, respectively. Furtwangler is all flair and drama one moment and then forced into stammering guilt and desperate cool, the other; Toyne captures both beautifully and, more remarkably, at the same time. Graham acquits himself with equal skill. By the end of the play, Arnold comes utterly undone with disgust at Furtwangler's actions; in his eyes, none of the excuses Furtwangler has come up with for his passive resistance of Hitler's regime - "Politics and art must be kept separate"; an artist is beyond the responsibilities of an ordinary citizen - could possibly weigh up to the horror of war that Arnold himself was forced to witness: death, destruction, burning flesh... Graham brings to his portrayal of Arnold a heartbreaking sincerity that cannot help but win the audience over.

That is until Harwood's sting in the tail and we are thrown again into free-fall.