Wednesday 4 January 2023

Theatre review: Watch on the Rhine

My first theatre trip of 2023 is to the Donald and Margot Warehouse. It's the show I'd actually planned to open the year with, and that in itself is one up on last year (which started with a bunch of cancelled and hastily-rescheduled performances from 2021.) I went into Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine knowing very little about it beyond the vague blurb on the website, and frankly being able to go in and be surprised is my ideal way to see a show. That blurb promised a German-American family taking in German relatives during the Second World War, before the USA had officially picked a side, so I was prepared for some queasy revelations about where the family's sympathies lie. Instead Hellman has a more defiant message in mind, and director Ellen McDougall delivers a tense domestic thriller about the moral ambiguities of heroism.

Wealthy widow Fanny Farrelly (Patricia Hodge) lives in a mansion in the suburbs of Washington DC with her son David (Geoffrey Streatfeild,) housekeeper/companion Anise (Kate Duchêne,) butler Joseph (David Webber) and numerous other unseen staff.

They're already playing host to one pair of refugees from the War - Martha (Carlyss Peer) is the daughter of a family friend; her marriage to Romanian baron Teck (John Light) was never a happy one, but now they've left their fortune behind it's particularly fraught. But the next arrival is the big one, as the daughter Fanny hasn't seen in 20 years, Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald,) is returning with her German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and their three children. They too are penniless but seem to be much more used to it, having travelled all around Europe for several years, generally leaving at short notice, long before they needed to flee the continent altogether.

It's not a particular secret that Kurt had dedicated the last decade of his life to fighting fascism, although he's cagy about exactly what they entailed. He's right to be cautious because Teck is very quickly suspicious, and starts rifling through the family's luggage for clues as soon as he gets a chance. By the interval he, and we, know the extent of Kurt's actions, and while he's now safely in the USA, the information could still do a lot of damage in the wrong hands.

But before the big confrontation Hellman gives us a lot of world-building and character work. The play may be serious but Hodge has a whale of a time showing us her Fanny, an ascerbic matriarch who hero-worships the memory of her dead husband, and while David has become a successful lawyer in his professional life, his mother's constant negative comparisons of him to his father have left him emotionally stunted: He and Martha have fallen for each other, but he's unable to show her he feels the same way. It's one of a few red herrings about where the plot might be going, that helps create a three-dimensional family we know to a certain extent by the time the crisis comes, and sets up a place of comparative safety that can be overturned unexpectedly.

Basia Bińkowska's design nods to black and white cinema for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but it does give a context for the captions and surtitles that sometimes appear (McDougall and Bińkowska have also noticed that the Donmar is in thrust, a surprisingly rare realisation, and have provided additional caption screens for the audience on the sides.) Watch on the Rhine makes for a worthy rediscovery, a play that doesn't telegraph its intentions from the start but economically creates characters with depth and takes them into a tense showdown. It also ultimately serves as a tribute to those spies and agents who took on vast forces both in WWII and other conflicts, while acknowledging the moral compromises this sometimes entailed. A final caption lets us know that Hellman herself practiced what she preached, and was notable for standing up to McCarthyite questioning a few years after the play premiered.

Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman is booking until the 4th of February at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.


  1. Has Basia Bińkowska's design influenced your 2023 thumbnail theme?

    1. No, funnily enough I was going to do this one for 2022 but decided it was too soon after the frames I used in 2019.