At the end of the Second World War, prominent Germans were removed from their positions and prevented from working whilst their associations with the Nazi regime were assessed and it was decided whether to give them a work permit or prosecute them for war crimes.
The 'de-Nazification' process was handled differently in the various regions, with the American sector introducing the greatest bureaucracy and control, a system that virtually collapsed under its own weight. Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides is effectively a interview between a fictitious American military officer and Wilhelm Furtwangler (the real-life leading conductor and composer).
Furtwangler (played by Julian Glover) argues that he stayed in his country because he loved it and wanted to keep its musical traditions alive. Further, that he resisted the Nazis in any way he could and helped hundreds of Jews to escape. Although his case is supported by those around him and those helped by him, the American (Neil Pearson) is driven by memories of Bergen-Belsen and feels the need to destroy anyone tainted by the Nazi regime. Was Furtwangler a Nazi or a pragmatist doing his best? Is the officer trying too hard to prove guilt by association?
The other characters in Harwood's piece include a turncoat second violin (John McEnry), a German secretary (Ruth Grey), the wife of a musician killed by the Nazis (Tamara Sachs) and a young Jewish American Officer (Tom Harper). They provide a more human perspective on the situation, that of ordinary people trying to make their way in difficult times and needing now to move on.
We, the audience, are caught in the middle. We can no more imagine the impact on ourselves of walking into Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war than we can guess our actual responses to living under the Nazi regime. It's perhaps hard to remember that the concentration camps came as much a shock to most Germans as they did to the Allies. Still, there are some strange parallels between the denazification process of the late 1940s and the current regime-removal underway in Iraq. Not a simple script, but a very well crafted one and superbly acted all round.
From a design perspective, Hayden Griffin presents us with a room in post-war occupied Berlin; outside we can see a shattered street. It has the look of the newsreel footage and photos of the time, aided by Andy Phillips' lighting, which emphasises the image and moods of the play without intruding. Music and sound are important to this production, and Matthew Scott's soundscapes, mixing Nazi speeches and classical music are very evocative.
Director Deborah Bruce is to be commended on a production without weak points; the script, set, acting, lighting, sound and cast are working together as a true ensemble. Taking Sides is not a comfortable play to watch, but it is a superb evening.