Donmar Warehouse, London – until 4 February 2023
Ellen McDougall’s sharp and biting revival of Lillian Hellman’s rarely performed play features plenty of classy performances.
Filled with power, anguish and plenty of moments of conflict, Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play is a gripping drama that appears at first as though it is a simple family drama but soon escalates into something much, much bigger when politics come into play.
Taking its title from a German song and set in 1941 (before the Americans joined the war), Watch On the Rhine sees Fanny Farrelly and her son David preparing to welcome the long-awaited return of daughter and sister Sara and her family back to Washington after a twenty year absence. Sara’s husband is German and it soon becomes clear that their life up until this point has seen them moving countless of times due to the war in Europe and their anti-fascist standing which soon leads to conflict in the form of other houseguest Teck and his wife Marthe (who is in love with David but hates her husband’s politics). The tension gradually bubbles to a fascinating and engaging climax that leaves the audience with plenty to think about.
Hellman’s script is wonderfully eloquent in the way brings out the character’s views and the growing tension between all of the characters. Never heavy handed, yes it is a little bit slow to get going but there is enough depth and detail to each character as the story unfolds that you can’t help but be drawn into what is unfolding. The play is brought to the stage in a classy way, thanks to Ellen McDougall’s thoughtful and suitably detailed production that makes the most of every moment and she is able to draw out high quality performances from all of the cast.
But she is also helped by Basia Bińkowska’s gorgeous designs that frames the story beautifully – highlighting the fact that underneath the glamour and even in America the horror of war can not be escaped. Meanwhile, the use of music is also threaded throughout and used to make a strong impact to highlight that this is very much a political play and the importance of music in the world of politics while highlighting the sense of danger lurking around the corner for Sara and her husband Kurt because of the part they are playing in the war.
While there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, there are certain aspects of the play that feel odd in the lager context of the story – in particular was it necessary to hint at Marthe’s relationship with David which doesn’t make any difference to the story – except for the fact that it convinces her to leave Teck. However, this being said this is still a very focused play, with plenty of moments of humour to break up the increasingly biting tension that give the audience enough time to breathe and take in each aspect of the story.
Throughout the entire production, the performances are of high quality from everyone involved. Patricia Hodge certainly gets many of the best lines as Fanny – displaying her sharp sense of delivery and timing, while capturing the many different aspect to the character perfectly. Elsewhere, I was also suitably chilled by John Light’s performance as the cold and calculating Teck, who moves around the room with an almost snakelike precision – just waiting to strike. Mark Waschke as Kurt, delivers a powerful and raw performance that is constantly compelling to watch. But we should also mention to Billy Byers, Chloe Raphael and Bertie Caplan as the Muller’s children – delivering plenty of personality and maturity to their roles.
Everything about this production feels authentic and sharp to make for a gripping watch. This is certainly a play that is worth reviving.
By Emma Clarendon
Watch on the Rhine is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 4th February. To book tickets visit: https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/