'Watch on the Rhine' review — Lillian Hellman's quietly explosive play haunts the mind

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

What price inaction? That eternal question hovers poignantly over the terrific revival of Lillian Hellman’s rarely seen Watch on the Rhine, which gets 2023 London playgoing off to a truly dynamic start.

This airing of Hellman’s quietly explosive 1940 play marks a sterling Donmar debut for the director Ellen McDougall, previously the artistic director of the Gate. And its capacious, uniformly expert cast conjoins veterans like Patricia Hodge, in grand form as a grandstanding American matriarch, with such newcomers to the London stage as Mark Waschke and Caitlin FitzGerald, the German and American actors, respectively, who play the married couple at the troubling and troubled core of Hellman’s deeply prescient, characteristically alert play.

Written before America had entered World War II, Watch on the Rhine takes a while to reveal its hand, even if the European river of the title can be glimpsed in Basia Bińkowska's clever set, placed largely within an outsized cinema screen so as to emphasise the period nature of the events on view.

At first, we could as well be at a barbed family comedy. Hodge’s Fanny Farrelly is a tart-tongued lady of the manor who says what she thinks (she derides a grandchild more or less on sight as “ugly”) but whose bark is clearly worse than her bite. This apparent scold in fact possesses a “bottom sweetness” as she is quick to point out.

Fanny can be forgiven for being on edge given the imminent arrival at her suburban manse of an expatriate daughter, Sara, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years and who is coming home to stay along with her German husband, Kurt, and three children possessed of varying degrees of precocity.

FitzGerald brings to the part a palpable radiance that is movingly challenged by the twists and turns of a plot that ends up foregrounding Kurt, whom Waschke – a stalwart of the German theatre – plays with tremendous vigour.

Sparkiest of the vaguely von Trapp-like trio of kids is the cheekily forthright Bodo, whom Bertie Caplan invests with a disarming directness that bodes well for any further theatre career, should this budding talent want one. (The young actors are double-cast, so Caplan shares his role with Henry Hunt.) You clock Bodo’s palpable delight in being part of a polyglot family that allows him to deploy words like “splenderous” without the actor ever becoming too cute.

Told in three acts with one interval, the play makes comic hay near the start of Fanny’s obsessive compulsive attention to time, and of domestic squabbles – affectionate but also not – that rope in her unmarried son, David (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a lawyer who isn’t averse to a drink before breakfast. “I am old and made of dry cork,” Fanny says by way of self-definition, Hodge locating a spit and vinegar within this indomitable figure that look to be in no danger of drying up.

The household help, Anise (Kate Duchêne), and Joseph (David Webber) lend a bemused eye on proceedings. The latter bookends proceedings by stepping outside the spatial frame of the set to sweep up the audience in his quietly knowing gaze.

Hellman couples nods in the direction of Noel Coward, before widening its gaze to address issues of Nazi complicity in a play possessed, as it happens, of no Jewish characters so as not to be accused of special pleading at the time.

From his first appearance, you expect the worst from a tight-lipped Romanian aristocrat notably named Teck de Brancovis, whom John Light brings to ominously clenched life. This is a man ruled by opportunism and money, and his contempt for his adulterous wife Marthe (Carlyss Peer) lends a chill that abets the play’s change in tone midway through.

What follows is a series of revelations – not to be detailed here – that prompt the severing of Kurt from his family and suggest a homecoming gone grimly awry: FitzGerald, from TV’s Succession, is nowhere more affecting than resigning herself late on to being alone if her husband is indeed to sacrifice himself on the altar of conscience.

This playhouse had a previous success with Hellman 22 years ago with a revival of The Little Foxes that marked a major career step forward at the time for its director, Marianne Elliott. The lesser-known Rhine – last seen in London in any major way at the National in 1980 – should do the same for McDougall, who releases this play from the charge of melodrama, much as Elliott did with Foxes back in the day.

I’m aware that others as well as I were left moist-eyed by a conclusion that leaves open-ended the fate of its personages, as befits a play written in only partial awareness of the horrors still to follow. Our last view is of the silent Joseph, there to link the carnage and strife of the 1940s to what has come since, grants Hellman’s play an eternally haunting quality. This Watch on the Rhine is well worth watching: not in a long time has a show come so honestly by the standing ovation at its close.

Watch on the Rhine is at the Donmar Warehouse through 4 February.

Photo credit: Mark Waschke, Bertie Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Chloe Raphael and Billy Byers (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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