Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Theatre review: Sommer 14 – A Dance of Death

The Finborough resumes its occasional series "THEGREATWAR100" with a look at the causes of World War I from a German perspective. Rolf Hochhuth’s Sommer 14 – A Dance of Death is structured as a Danse Macabre, the mediaeval allegory of Death as the great leveler, dancing with everybody in the end regardless of their status when they were alive. But Death (Dean Bray,) in the guise of a recently-killed German soldier, is unable to fulfill his role. Faced with killing on an industrialised scale, he's no longer able to provide the personal touch to those dying on the Front, imagining a "cutting machine" taking lives in bulk. Instead he focuses on the men at the top, visiting them in the earlier months of 1914 and trying to figure out why they caused the war that broke out in July of that year.

So we get a series of short scenes in which Death watches a succession of flamboyant moustaches prepare for war, long before they've had an incendiary event to justify it; in between the sketches he sings darkly satirical songs.

Sommer 14 makes for an interesting history lesson, which places equal blame on both sides for engineering the conflict. History would record the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the triggering event, and the tensions from decades of uneasy alliances as the root cause. But Hochhuth’s play suggests that the war ultimately came about because enough people - the kind of people who knew they were safe from being personally touched by it - simply wanted it to.

It's very effective, although the second act does lose focus a bit: The main thrust so far has been in roughly chronological order, building up to the declaration of war. But now we jump back and forward a couple of years to see US arms dealer Henry Stimson (Stephen Omer) profit from the distant war, and the sinking of the Lusitania. But the latter's story had already been set up when we saw Churchill (Nick Danan) essentially make it bait for the Americans to join the war, and jumping ahead distracts from the play's central purpose. This second act does lose momentum, including in a strangely domestic scene of Fritz Haber (Danan) and his wife (Andrea Hart) arguing over his invention of chemical warfare.

I also wished director Christopher Loscher had taken more advantage of the opportunity Hochhuth’s structure gives him to turn the piece into a kind of grotesque music-hall, but whenever the ghoulish narrator is offstage the action is played pretty straight. But he marshals a huge cast through multiple characters and although Sommer 14 is ultimately disappointing, those scenes that do work are devastatingly effective.

Sommer 14 - A Dance of Death by Rolf Hochhuth in a version by Gwynne Edward is booking until the 30th of August at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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