Donmar Warehouse, London – until 4 February 2023
Theatre can offer few more topical messages for a nation which might hesitate over Ukraine’s needs than this neglected one-set domestic play by Lillian Hellman. It is an artfully jolting picture of a comfortable, secure and affluent society abruptly reminded of an angry wolfish world in conflict, and why turning a blind eye to it is both shameful and imprudent.
By coincidence it seems to be 1941 week on Theatrecat: two nights ago I saw (scroll down) Allegiance, set in an America which had hesitated over joining WW2 but then was shocked by Pearl Harbour, and abruptly interned its citizens of Japanese heritage. Then came this play, set in that limbo just before the US joined. It ran on Broadway in 1941, and with American mobilisation was a hit film in 1943 with Bette Davis, the ending expanded to suggest an ongoing duty of conflict.
Ellen McDougall’s Donmar direction plays on the idea of a 1940s film, a screen flickering, widening to frame the live action. I thought at first this might be mere retro-chic and distance it from today, but somehow it did the opposite as the flesh-and-blood players emerged and made one aware that no war is properly distant.
The Farrelly household in Washington DC – widowed Miz Fanny, her bachelor son, the black butler Joseph and old retainer Annise – are to learn this sharply. Staying with them is an old friend’s daughter, Martha, who married Teck, a Romanian Count now on his uppers as a refugee. Fanny’s daughter is coming home with her German husband Kurt and their three children after 20 years away, in which (as Fanny gradually discovers) Kurt has been daringly active since the early 1930s in anti-fascism across Europe, wounded in Spain.
Artfully, Hellman gives us a lot of breezy domestic comedy: Patricia Hodge is superb as Fanny, prickly and grand and rich but clever and observant, and the three children are wonderful, meeting their Grandmother for the first time and proving very un-American, German in their polite earnestness. The youngest is a treat. The gulf between their European lives and Miz Fanny’s is neatly indicated when they are offered breakfast on arrival. “Anything that can be spared” they say politely “Eggs, are not too expensive?” Another layer of family life is that Martha’s marriage is crumbling, the son of the house besotted with her.
The household gradually feels the tension between the Europeans: Count Teck clearly has a tendresse for Herr Hitler’s National Socialist Party and its values, and mistrusts Kurt to the point, we will discover, of unleashing a horror. The contrast of the European men is impeccably done, right down to the costume clues : Mark Waschke’s engaging, warm, slightly shabby Kurt and the three-piece pinstripe and hair-oil of Teck. The second half darkens as news comes of anti-Fascist arrests, the task Kurt has before him in going back, and the cost to his family. Caitlin Fitzgerald as Sara is marvellous, restrained, palely steadfast in her readiness for the coming loneliness as her husband resists Fanny’s hope he will stay in family safety with the breathtaking Hellman line “My children are not the only children in the world. Even to me”. As we have been enjoying and laughing with those children for two hours, that hits home hard.
So, weirdly, does Teck’s smugly strange line about his treachery “I do not do it without some shame”. Both sides are trapped in the wickedness of the war – “thousands of years and we cannot yet make a world where old men can die in bed”. A shocking violence breaks the drawing-room atmosphere, and Fanny has a decision to make.
Getting here was a third attempt – covid, the show’s own delay, rail strikes. I could not be more pleased to have made it to a last seat in the gallery. Power to the Donmar, and a last salute to Hellman, a writer who knew that you must both entertain and awaken.
Box office. Www.donmarwarehouse.com. To 4 Feb