A German Life by Christopher Hampton. the Bridge Theatre, London. 5*****. William Russell

By Christopher Hampton.
The Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Field, London SE1 2SG to 11 May 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm. Mat
Runs 1hr 35 mins. No interval.
TICKETS: 0333 320 0052
Review: William Russell 15 April.

A performance to remember – a time to never forget
Maggie Smith’s return to the stage after a 12 year absence turns out to be memorable – she is at the height of her powers in this monologue crafted by Christopher Hampton from the documentary of the same name in which Brunhilde de Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’ secretary, looked back at her life. She is alone in her room in a care home, a little old lady sitting at a table chatting to someone, but to the audience, every line coming across crystal clear in a theatre where the acoustics have defeated some all too often. It starts amusingly, she gets the laughs the lines allow as she talks about her youth, her strict upbringing which seems to have made her partly obedient to authority but with spirit enough to carve out her career, and then as the Nazis takeover it all become slightly evasive, she doesn’t know what is going on except she knows her Jewish friends are friends no longer and seem to have moved away. As the evening progresses the set moves slowly forward towards the audience, the light dies and she becomes isolated in a spotlight. Did she know what was happening? Probably but she seems to have shut it out. She was almost certainly not a Nazi, although her brothers were brown shirts, but someone who went on with her life as best she could in the circumstances of the time, which is possibly what most people would do. It is relevant to today as the forces of the far right are re-assembling throughout Europe. Just what would one do? Power lies elsewhere, everyday life goes on and slowly the parameters of what one can do change – those cherished Jewish friends move away, stop coming to call, which is a pity but that is life. Awful thing s happen in Syria, dreadful things happen at Guantanamo, young people carry knives and kill but nothing goes wrong in your street or at work.
There was a moment when de Pomsel said that “Nowadays I don’t think people would be stupid enough to fall for the kind of nonsense we fell for” and the audience reacted with a low moan of recognition. Times have changed, history does not repeat itself but something is happening across the world and especially in Europe and here. Maggie Smith could so easily have come back in something that exploited the fame she gained from Downton Abbey or some classic role, but here she is treading new ground and doing so with no sign of age having dimmed her command of the stage. She is warm, funny to start with, confiding her memories happily enough and then with just that edge of uncertainty – is she telling the whole truth or the truth she remembers.
It is a disturbing affair because while de Pomsel was just a secretary, and was appalled by Goebbels when sent to attend a rally by the violence of his speech egging his audience to shout that they wanted “total war”, she is also fascinated by him as an employer> She must have realised what the ministry she worked in did, and what was going on. She admits that they faked the statistics for a start. But people forget what they do not want to remember .At one point de Pomsel remarks – “Isn’t it funny, the things you can’t remember and the things you’ll never forget.” She remembers perhaps what she wants to remember, forgets what she wants to forget. One is never sure. But what is beyond doubt is a great actress still at the height of her powers tackling something unexpected and challenging triumphs in a play poses questions for the audience.
De Pomsel died aged 106 on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Brunhilde de Pomsel: Maggie Smith.
Director: Jonathan Kent.
Designer: Anna Fleischle.
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark.
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis.
Design Associate: Liam Bunster.
Costume Supervisor: Eleanor Dolan.

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