Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2023

Watch on the Rhine

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: American Theater, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Directed by Ellen McDougall, Designer Basia Binkowska, Lighting Designer Azusa Ono, Sound Designer Tinying Dong, Fight  Director Christian Cardenas, Musical Director Josh Middleton, Video Designer  Sarah Readman, Casting Anna Cooper CDG,

Production Manager Marek Joyce, Costumer Supervisor Megan Rarity, Props Supervisor Lily Mollgaard,  Assistant Props Supervisor Jamie Owens, Voice and Dialect Coach Nia Lynn, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Supervisor Sharon Pearson, Dramaturg Emma Jude Harris, Climate Dramaturg Zoe Sevndsen, Dramaturg mezze eade,

CSM Lizzie Donaghy, DSM Lavinia Serban, ASM Devon James Bowen, SM Intern Sammy Lacey, Resident assistant Director Josh Parr, Chaperones Julia Phelan, Helen Phelan

Till February 4th



The patriotic song supplying the title of Lillian Hellman’s 1941 Broadway play Watch on the Rhine is never sung.  It’s not the only thing Hellman felt it necessary to silence in her play about anti-fascism crashing in on an old Washington Liberal family.

This Donmar revival directed by Ellen McDougall restores the implicit Jewish identity of some characters. Substituting contemporary composers like Misha Spoilansky and Friedrich Hollaendar – memorably revived in the 1990s – for Haydn and Mozart, musical director Josh Middleton (alongside Tinying Dong’s sound design) reasserts the roar of Weimar for Viennese nicety, as one character flickers tunes over the piano with once-tortured hands.

Those hands belong to Kurt Muller (Mark Waschke), heroic anti-fascist married to Sara (Caitlin Fitzgerald) whose entire family breaks in on her mother, grand dame Fanny Farrelly (Patricia Hodge) and cowed lawyer brother David (Geoffrey Streatfield), always reminded how much in the shadow of his father he is.

Sarah Readman’s silver-screen intro and outro recall the 1943 film, its flicker jumpy with war, like static on phantom limbs. Designer Basia Binkowska frames a cinema-screen prosc-arch aperture with a brilliantly crisp strip of Washington DC privilege, all phones and decanters upstage. Only later do we dishevel to a more forward drawing-room, cards, tables, upsets. Azusa Ono’s lighting shifts from bright classical to subdued lamps.

 Still-neutral America could take very little European reality. Set in July 1940, the play was begun in 1938 and it’s easier to imagine a pre-war notion of entering and exiting fortress Europe, with Hellman simply overtaken by events, and her own extensive research. Hellman’s characters were based on real ones, and in Karl she creates a figure of real stature, here realised by Waschke in a gauntly lyrical paean to human values, shadowed with what he’s endured, and will again.

Hellman’s work both draws attention to its Broadway period and how she sets about breaking it. The sly setting-forth might be Hellman saying ‘this is a polite comedy with an acid tone. I’m going to play it that way then you’ll begin to understand why something astonishing happens in an hour.’ Previously accused of melodrama, Hellman excises communism (even by disavowal) as well as Jewish identity, WASP fascism as well as details of the Spanish Civil war (earlier drafts make fascinating reading).

The drama of eight adults onstage are further complicated with three children. American plays of the 1930s-40s are often generous with cast. But if you’re as meticulous as Hellman they’re given more than walk-ons.

McDougall paces its two-hour-fifteen with judicious cuts. It’s still not till the last fifteen minutes of the first half this work starts its overt chess game. Hellman leads quietly from the polite outset with servants and bells; the hapless David’s understated journey is part of it. With serpentine writing and pincer movements Hellman introduces conflicts, tentative love-affairs, and a wrenching love at the centre – Waschle’s and Fitzgerald’s performances, stoically fraught, movingly distilling what’s at stake for them personally against what they’re prepared to do in order to look Europe in the face, easily leaps over melodrama.

There are pantomime villains – Romanian count Teck de Brancovis is brought to a gleam by John Light, in a part given a few touches of shade to offset the shadows so to speak. Marthe de Brancovis (Carlyss Peer) is more interesting. Peer speaks rapidly, defiantly, and bursts into a memorable personal rhythm when allowed her relatively brief appearances.

The two servants are allowed brief, telling moments of dignity, though neither Anise (Kate Duchene) nor Joseph (David Webber), despite stage business, have much opportunity to prevent the privileged classes morally hogging the piece.

There’s the challenge of so much dialogue involving three children. Both Hellman and McDougall navigate pathos and ‘out-of-the-mouths’ moments with a distinctly talented trio. On this occasion Bodo Miller (a winning Bertie Caplan) snatches the attention every time – Hellman upends expectations by having the youngest the most eloquent, for Fanny sickeningly, precocious: Caplan’s a discovery. Joshua Muller (Billy Bryers) has less to do and Hellman gives him moments of affect and action. Tamar Lanaido as Babbette has rather more, though again gestures plucky resolution.

Hellman had intended Fanny a more unsympathetic character. Here, perhaps inevitably she’s redeemable, and Hodge makes wry use of her journey to understanding, refracted through her encounters with Caplan, easily the comic highlight of a tense and slowly engrossing thriller. The urbane Streatfield is strikingly subdued as the put-upon son whose own life seems transformed at the end, ready for anything: even perhaps romance.

In the week this revival opened two British aid-workers were reported missing, one declared dead, trying to extricate Ukrainians from Russian-held territory. History doesn’t often put the boot in quite so insistently. Hellman’s uneasy drama, reaching out to our own quandaries, has answers that stay news. A must-see.