(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/11/23; Photo: Channelling Bette Davis … Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Patricia Hodge stars in Hellman’s play about a liberal American family confronted by war in Europe and the dangers of inaction

Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play looks like the silver screen come to life. It is framed as if inside an old-style cinema, with a rolling prologue in period typeface, the back wall flickering intermittently – a reminder that her plays were numerously made into Hollywood films.

Despite these dated effects, this quietly incandescent play about Nazi tyranny in Europe – and the US’s inertia in the face of it – feels current in the ethical questions it raises.

We meet the Farrelly family in their refined Washington DC home as matriarch Fanny (Patricia Hodge) waits to welcome back, after a 20-year absence, her daughter Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald) who has a German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children in tow.

Impeccably directed by Ellen McDougall, with an inspired design by Basia Bińkowska, what seems like a potential comedy of manners or family friction drama becomes charged with bigger world politics and violence.

Sara and Kurt are anti-fascist fugitives who bring the war in Europe to the door of this ostensibly liberal household, albeit with a Black butler who answers Fanny with “yes’m”. Kurt describes how he was compelled to fight against nazism after watching 27 people killed in the street (the word “Jew” is rarely uttered in this play but lies just beneath its surface).

“I could not stand by and watch,” he says. That message might have been written as a wake-up call to the US which had still not entered the second world war at the time of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1941 – but it is also instructive for us in light of the Ukraine war.

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