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Review: Nachtland (Young Vic)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

Adolf Hitler, most sensible people would argue, is remembered more for his political career than for his work as an artist. Still, German dramatist Marius von Mayenburg most recent offering, Nachtland, poses a question – what would you do if you stumbled across an original painting signed by one A. Hitler? Newly translated, this grimly comic satire casts an ominous but, perhaps, necessary shadow over the Young Vic.

 

With their father having passed away, Nicola and Philipp bicker as they clear through decades of belongings with the help of their spouses in modern day Germany. Alternating between narrating their own story to the audience and living in those moments, the quartet explain how they stumbled upon a painting hidden in the attic – the siblings realise the monetary value possible in its lineage, while Philipp’s Jewish wife Judith insists it ought to be destroyed. Once an expert on Hitler’s artistic endeavours is found to verify the painting, buried prejudice rises to the surface as Judith becomes the sole voice of reason while greed overwhelms morality.



As the audience enter, Anna Fleischle’s stage is piled with the kind of junk you'd expect in an old man’s attic – an ironing board with a gaudy cover, an old-fashioned hat rack, long broken toys, and mismatched furniture – until the two couples come on stage and systematically clear the space. Left behind is the grimy interior wall of the attic, and the cracked, broken floor of the metaphorical Nachtland. After all, it’s a made-up word suggesting a place of eternally darkness, and Fleischle’s set immediately creates the impression of this story being told to us from a place devoid of light, or perhaps of human decency.

 

Anchoring the story in some level of reality, Jenna Augen is terrific as Judith, desperately trying to convince her husband that no amount of money justifies what she sees as a validation of the man responsible for millions of deaths. Augen’s sense of humanity and desperation are a beautiful foil to the increasingly blasé attitude of sister-in-law Nicola, and help to clarify that the others’ willingness to continue the whole affair is what we're supposed to laugh at, rather than at Judith for being so personally offended. Trapped in a world where no one quite seems to grasp the seriousness of their ethical dilemma, Augen’s performance keeps Judith perpetually grounded, and carries the emotional arc of the show, as well as providing strong, emotive vocals when called to offer up a somber farewell song.



Gunnar Cauthery brings some great comic chops to Nicola’s husband Fabian, as well as some truly disturbing physicality when a mishap with the painting’ frame becomes a brush with tetanus. Unfortunately, his arc falls flat as he simply leaves to seek medical help and isn't seen again, rendering his presence bafflingly unnecessary. Philipp, the son who wasn't around for the end but wants full credit for being there now, is played with a boyish foolishness and great comedic timing by John Heffernan, who slowly brings his more sinister qualities to the surface as he moves from bumbling husband to uncaring con artist.

 

Particularly adept in her role is Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nicola, the more conniving of the siblings. Myer-Bennett clearly relishes the chance to play the callousness of the role, and leans nicely into her condescending, pot-stirring tendencies. Also utterly delightful in her willingness to play into the crueler shades of the role, Jane Horrocks plays the art expert drafted in to help verify and sell the painting. Horrocks brings an immediate comic wit to the role, and gives real weight to throwaway quips and antisemitic remarks as these become more freely scattered into the conversations.



The cast is rounded out by a sinister, almost cartoonishly creepy Angus Wright as the buyer, Kahl. While Wright makes good use of his time on stage, the character's presence is confused by his initial entrance, in which he appears in tissue underwear to perform a short dance routine. This is never mentioned or acknowledged, and when we next see him he is fully dressed and properly introduced. As with the sudden absence of Fabian, these strange abnormalities serve only to distract form the main story, and this dance routine in particular is a jarring tonal shift.

 

Patrick Marber, recently Tony-awarded for his work on Leopoldstadt, directs the production, making clever use of re-angling the small array of chairs and the music stand on which the unseen painting sits to suggest changes of location. Coupled with the direct addresses to the audience, Marber’s having actors re-enter scenes through the stalls themselves suggests characters removing themselves not just from situations, but from the recounting of them, until they feel the need to reestablish themselves to set their end of things right. The directors command of tone is mostly solid, though the aforementioned entrance of Kahl still leaves me scratching my head.



Translated by Maja Zade, von Mayenburg’s story is remarkably poignant much of the time, and Zade’s translation sounds smooth and naturalistic throughout, aside for the moments where bombast and overly articulated points are essential to the debates being held. While the story’s pace is never an issue, I couldn't help but feel let down by the ending moments – the story’s closing scene felt, to me, non-comital and unwilling to draw any real conclusion to the ongoing ethical debate. Certain aspects of the finale were also confusing or suddenly thrust on the audience, disrupting the previously solid flow of events with a feeling of being rushed to a dissatisfactory conclusion.

 

In a technical level, this production is a marvel. Richard Howell’s use of stark spotlights to highlight introspective moments, and of a pervasive dullness as the characters abandon any trace of morality, is inspired. The soundscape created by Adam Cork is captivating, beginning with the wind blowing against the attic walls and continuing to subtly underscore the tense, emotionally-fraught scenes until echoing screams for help at a pivotal and heart/wrenching moments. Between their work and Fleischle's stark, cold set, the feeling of the imagined Nachtland hangs threateningly over the proceedings. 



While far from perfect and outright confusing in some key moments, Nachtland’s satire is still biting and effective, raising the kind of questions about Hitler and the Nazis that most wouldn't even think to ask. With a strong cast and astounding production values, the production can be a mixed bag, but not one I'd advise against a cautious look through. In a world where we are increasingly asked whether we can separate the work we enjoy from its creator, Nachtland may be one of London theatre’s most poignant offerings.

 

Nachtland plays at the Young Vic until April 20th

 

For tickets and information visit https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/nachtland

 

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

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