Robyn Nevin. Photo – James Green

A German Life is a play with a cast of one, by Christopher Hampton, and is directed in the production for the Adelaide Festival by Neil Armfield, one of the Festival’s co-directors and of course now one of our pre-eminent Australian theatre directors. It traces the rise and fall of the Third Reich, seen through the fragmentary and distorted mirrors of memory of one of Goebbel’s secretaries, Brunhilde Pomsel, as she tells the story from her old age home in her nineties.

The cast of one is Robyn Nevin, and it was no surprise that her performance was riveting. Her entry into the character of the secretary was complete, and the contrast between the frail, doddering nonagenarian tottering about her little room, and the mighty horrors of the Nazi period she describes, is the chief dynamic, the chief agony, of the play. Her account is from time to time interrupted by black and white film footage taken from the events she mentions.

The tension in these film scenes, which we have all seen before, arises from the discrepancy between how the secretary describes the actions of the Nazis, all uniformly described as “very nice men”, and the seeming ineluctability of the events portrayed in the film excerpts. This tension is deepened considerably by the score. The music, played by the consummate baroque cellist Catherine Finnis, is extremely economical, consisting of solo cello sometimes playing over a track she pre-recorded; the economy of having only one musician precisely reflects the economy of having only one actor. Apart from two passages from Anna Magdalena Bach’s solo suites, the music is by Alan John, one of Australia’s ablest opera and theatre composers. Using short motifs, with subtle references to music Hitler liked, it was bitingly effective, and at times, for example during the exodus of Jews to Auschwitz, generated the searing intensity of some of the bitterer Shostakovich preludes.

Everything about the production and performance was as close to perfect as anything you are ever likely to see on stage. My one reservation concerns the play itself. Yes, we do need to be reminded that “evil exists”, and that people close to horrors like Auschwitz (or Manus Island) “don’t care”. Armfield is quite right that the play is “as much about our contemporary world as it is about Hitler’s Germany”. But my feeling was that theatre was the wrong medium for this message. I may be (I am) old-fashioned, but to me the nature of theatrical agon demands a conflict, one that is worked out on stage. Tensions there certainly were in this play, but they were not worked out on stage, only in the reporting by Pomsel. This was entirely diachronic, and entirely lacking in surprise to anyone remotely literate in the Third Reich. I felt that the novel would have been a better form for the content of this play. Robyn Nevin’s tour de force of a performance could not hide this lack of surprise. So I would say: attend this performance to see actor, director, composer, and cellist, at the top of their game. But don’t expect a revelation.

Event details

2021 Adelaide Festival
A German Life
by Christopher Hampton

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre | King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 19 Feb – 14 Mar 2021
Tickets: $99 – $30


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