Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube

An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Hugh Bonneville Triumphs in Ibsen’s Classic Play

Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre
Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at CFT

When a public vote chooses Boaty McBoatface as the name for a polar exploration ship, it’s easy to agree with the main character in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (Chichester Festival Theatre) that the majority is ‘stupid’. I’m don’t even want to talk about the EU referendum.

Dr Tomas Stockmann starts out believing the people will welcome his revelation that the town’s spa water is unhealthy. But when local people of influence realise the effect on business and the cost of putting it right, the townspeople are soon persuaded by them that Stockmann is their ‘enemy’.

His mistake is to think that truth cannot be denied. The reality is that most of us believe what we want to believe against the facts. And if the facts don’t fit, we blame a cover up or a conspiracy or make a leap of faith.

If our hopes and fears are exploited by ruthless politicians, advertisers or other people with an agenda, all the worse. The debate about ‘fake news’ and the behaviour of Donald Trump and some of our own politicians makes Ibsen’s play seem bang up-to-date. When you hear the outrageous statements made by our political elite during the EU referendum campaign and the level of ignorance among the electorate, even though the BBC’s Reality Check was freely available, you can sympathise with Stockmann.

He may believe the majority are stupid and society would be better run by an elite but we the audience can see that the majority are not stupid, merely uninformed, and the elite are the very ones who have undermined his truth.

A mountain range of a performance

An Enemy Of The People, directed by Howard Davies, offers a view of society in which nearly everybody operates out of self interest and those that don’t are crushed by those that do. Ibsen tells the truth as he sees it and it’s a view of human nature that may make him an enemy of the people but like all great artists he helps us understand humanity, if we are prepared to accept that life isn’t black and white. Our hero Stockmann isn’t spared from an honest depiction. He may be admirable as a whistleblower but he has flaws and suspect motives.

We see that he is driven by jealousy of his brother. We cringe at his hubris when he thinks he will be feted by his fellow citizens. We realise his ‘honesty’, at first attractive, is naive because he doesn’t see the need to engage and persuade people. We find him arrogant in thinking he is superior. We are shocked at his willingness to sacrifice his family.

All these swings from initial confidence through pride, bewilderment and anger to eventual collapse are conveyed in a brilliantly nuanced performance at Chichester by Hugh Bonneville. You may know him from TV’s Downton Abbey or W1A. I could feel every emotion his character was feeling. Even when I was laughing at his naive expectation of the honour he would receive, I still felt sorry for him. This is a mountain range of a performance.