Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • TOSCA’S KISS • Orange Tree Theatre • 2006

Sam Walters and Auriol Smith receiving the Empty Space Peter Brook Award for the Orange Tree Theatre in 2006 [Wikimedia]

Sam Walters and Auriol Smith receiving the Empty Space Peter Brook Award for the Orange Tree Theatre in 2006 [Wikimedia]

You would think by now that Nuremberg as a subject would have reached saturation point. We’ve read the books, seen the films, eaves-dropped on the accused being cross-examined courtesy of Nick Kent’s Tricycle tribunal docu-dramas (edited highlights of the Nuremberg Trials was one of his earliest hits).

But, Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides (which looks at the compromised position of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and his relationship with Nazi Germany) and Julia Pascal’s A Dead Woman on Holiday (also set at Nuremberg) apart, the number of plays with Nuremberg as their backdrop turn out to have been fewer than one imagines.

Interestingly, Kenneth Jupp, like Harwood, chooses a musical motif, though it has to be said the parallels between Puccini’s self-sacrificing heroine and Jupp’s idealistic hero, the young American lawyer Tom Morton, is probably one of the play’s less convincing elements.

Jupp, it turns out, is no newcomer. Google him and you come up with the amazing fact that his first play,The Buskers, first won notice back in the early 60s. Since then, apparently, he’s been abroad (in exile one wonders?). Back home again, Tosca’s Kiss represents his return to the stage and this play first saw the light of day in a reading at the Haymarket last year, subsequently championed by no less than Harold Pinter, intriguingly also a champion of Harwood’s.

Pinter saw something in Tosca’s Kiss and I can see why. Political morality, culpability and the uglier, unacceptable face of western (for which read predominantly American) capitalism has preoccupied Pinter, as we know, with increasing venom in recent years. Jupp sets his stall out early in Tosca’s Kiss with his narrating protagonist, Rebecca West, imparting to us quite clearly that this is to be a play about political compromise.

In fact, Jupp’s success here is very largely due to the concentrated force of the factual material he has gathered together rather than its love interest though it’s hard to conceive of any production that could better Auriol Smith’s for creating the 40s period so evocatively – her sound cues from ranting Führer to Glen Miller and young Sinatra are spot on – or handle the love scenes with such tact and flair.

Mind you, with Julia Watson (as West) and David Yelland (as Francis Biddle, one of America’s top judges at Nuremberg), she could hardly go wrong. Watson is new to me. But what a find. She catches West’s Englishness with a quixotic mix of asperity, keen intellect and racy, slightly naive romanticism. See the way her eyes narrow as she and Francis encircle each other. Wonderful to watch within the intimate confines of the Orange Tree. Yelland too gives a fine account as the suave, morally equivocal attorney.

But the gravitas also comes from watching the immaculate Charles Kay as Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s Economic Minister (every bit as much the ‘architect’ of the Third Reich as Albert Speer), being cross-examined by Steven Elder’s idealistic Tom Morton.

As you watch the bespectacled, pin-striped Kay and listen to Schacht’s unruffled responses, it is not only the realpolitik of pre and post-war economic rationalisation we hear being touted with Schacht’s emphasis on expediency and hand-in-glove friendship with American and European Big Business; it is its continuing pattern nearer to home, in Iraq. For not the first time, a playwright, Jupp, has unearthed an example of a naïvety bordering on the criminal with regard to the West and the US’s relationship with dictators. We build ’em up only to pull ’em down.

And when at last Jupp delivers his coup de grâce – Schacht is acquitted (the West ‘needs’ him once more, as a bulwark against Cold War Communism) and Morton is left with the dubious distinction of being the only allied lawyer to lose his case – the sense of stain and corruption is palpable and piercing. Morton ‘liberated’ Dachau and perhaps never quite recovered. Auriol Smith has him undressing, naked before us, reliving those moments of annihilation – another idealistic lamb to the slaughter – whilst West delivers the epilogue to survival and, by implication, duplicity.

By no means a perfect play, some of it even emotionally lumpy, Tosca’s Kiss is an altogether tighter piece of work than James Philip’s The Rubenstein Kiss seen last year at Hampstead – another play that dramatised real events, this time the American ‘spies’, the Rosenbergs, and that starred the equally impressive Will Keen and Samantha Bond as the communist-inspired idealists.

Jupp may oversimplify but thanks to Auriol Smith’s cracking production, faultless acting and a script that carries enough irony, self-awareness and passion to overcome most critical defences, the argument between idealism and political pragmatism becomes well and truly air-borne. It may be a moot point as to whether we best learn our history from ‘verbatim’ re-enactment or dramatisation. For my money, on-stage, dramatisation will always have the edge. You can’t beat the imaginative flight.

Carole Woddis © 2006

Originally published on R&V 16-05-06

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