'Nachtland' review – this new play about the discovery of a Nazi painting is a stingingly acidic satire

Read our review of the darkly comic play Nachtland, directed by Patrick Marber, now in performances at the Young Vic to 20 April.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Before Marius von Mayenburg’s new play Nachtland begins in earnest, it’s clear that something is rotting. The audience is greeted by a dismal jumble of old toys, tatty homeware, obsolete gadgets, and a hospital bed (evocative design by Anna Fleischle). Four individuals clear away the detritus. Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), who cared for her father during his final illness, is keen to get all the formalities done and dusted but her brother Philipp (John Hefferman) is in a philosophical mood.

It looks set to be a comedy of sibling rivalry and dysfunctional families but there’s one more thing in the attic: a small, unpretentious watercolour in a muted palette depicting a quiet street scene. Nicola dismisses it as kitsch but Philipp is charmed. A closer look at the back reveals a signature: A. Hitler. Euro signs start to flash.

Philipp’s wife Judith (Jenna Augen) – who, as Philipp makes a meal of explaining – is Jewish and disgusted by the whole thing. Nicola’s stooge-like tetanus-afflicted husband Fabian (Gunnar Cauthery) is literally collateral damage.

There’s no sign of Myer-Bennet, who makes a fully convincing frenzied monster, being a late replacement for Romola Garai (“Why do you have to make everything about the Holocaust?” she asks her sister-in-law), and Heffernan is splendidly effete as the gutless Philipp.

The painting is never shown; we only see the frame, made by Samuel Morgenstern, a Viennese Jewish glazier who supported and even socialised with Hitler during his time in Vienna. The title (an invented German word suggesting a place of eternal darkness) comes from a letter he wrote to his former associate before he was deported and murdered.

The problem with Nachtland as a play of ideas – primarily whether it’s possible to separate the art and the artist – is its lopsidedness. There’s no compelling argument for saving the painting apart from personal greed. The characters aren’t in desperate straits financially.

Anyone who wants to buy a painting because it’s by Hitler is going to fetishise it, and it’s doubtful a museum would have use for it. As for the disposal of art being an absolute no-no, charity shops no doubt receive a fair number of daubs that are discretely thrown away after a fashion.

Patrick Marber’s acidic production is very funny in places and there are some good zingers in Maja Zade’s translation, especially in the exposure of hypocrisy. Nicola and Philipp are from a family that has always congratulated itself on its lack of Nazi connections; just Grandma Greta was a party member – in name only, of course – as was required of all members of the state opera.

However, to boost the painting’s provenance, they have no scruples in posthumously pimping out their grandmother, making her the lover of Hitler’s private secretary Martin Bormann. Having gone this far, it’s all a game.

The “respectable” Nazi presence in modern Germany is explicitly represented by Jane Horrocks as glacial art historian Evamaria, for whom Hitler is more than a professional and intellectual interest.

Angus Wright makes a sinister late cameo as an art collector who thinks he’s as suave as Omar Sharif, reels off a list of cultural figures who were openly antisemitic (“There’s no one left!” whimpers Philipp), and offers to drive up the price with an Indecent Proposal-style twist. Together, he and Evamaria make a real pair of Death Eaters.

The production is broken up with short expressionist tableaus (including a bondage-style dance from Wright). When incest randomly enters the frame, have the siblings become so mercenary that there are no taboos left? It’s an uneven hour and a half, but one with a certain lingering energy.

Nachtland is at the Young Vic through 20 April. Book Nachtland tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Nachtland (Photo by Ellie Kurttz)

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