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  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Young Vic, Waterloo
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
 Nachtland, Young Vic, 2024
Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A superb cast grapples with this challenging German satire about a pair of siblings who inherit a very unusual painting

What would you do if you found an ‘original Hitler’ in your late father’s attic?

That’s the essential premise of ‘Nachtland’, and while you suspect an Anglo playwright might have turned in an acerbic but conventional dining room comedy, German writer Marius von Mayenburg has created something more difficult and confrontational than that.

It begins with siblings Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Philipp (John Heffernan) bickering over the right to tell their late father’s story. She’s withering and highly strung, he’s blithe and a bit feeble. Their pass-agg back and forth over their deceased dad is fairly innocuous… until Nicola’s husband Fabian (Gunnar Cauthry) finds a painting in the attic, wrapped in brown paper. 

Nicola thinks the watercolour of an Austrian church is kitschy rubbish and wants to throw it out. Or she does until they see the artist’s signature - A Hitler - and it becomes obvious who the artist was, something confirmed by Jane Horrocks’s sinister Nazi art dealer Evamaria. 

The siblings start to see Euro signs - but Evamaria tells them they must prove the provenance of the painting and its connection to the family if they want to really rake in life-changing sums. So they set about establishing their family’s Nazi connections with aplomb - much to the horror of Philipp’s Jewish wife Judith (Jenna Augen), whose objections to the whole affair are met with withering disdain and low-level antisemitism from Nicola.

It’s weirder than all that sounds: things start to get really odd when Fabian is apparently infected with Hitler’s spirit; then Angus Wright turns up as camply sinister art collector Kahl; then it just seems to leave the rules of physics behind and become a sort of wild allegory for post-War German character. 

As a wilfully uncomfortable play about contemporary Germany it certainly works.  That’s not to say Mayenburg doesn’t have some smartly universal stuff to say about the constructedness of identity and the means by which racial prejudices take root. But it would be absurd to pretend this was anything other than a nationally specific story – and it’s okay to stage stories about other cultures! 

Patrick Marber’s production is atmospheric, drenched in the music of Berlin-era Bowie, with an evocative haunted house set from Anna Fleischle that looks like a rotting corpse. There are excellent performances: Heffernan is sublimely funny as the spineless Philipp, Wright and Horrocks are gloriously weird, and Myer-Bennett tackles the selfish Nicola with monstrous conviction (you’d not guess she joined the cast late, replacing Romola Garai, who dropped out during rehearsals).

Still, there’s something a bit draining about its abrupt shifts in tone, and its caginess about being out and out funny. It’s a fiddly play, that frequently threatens you with a good time but it often feels like the cast and Marber are more interested in being funny than the text is. The English adaptation comes from German-Swedish dramaturg Maja Zade, and I do wonder if a British playwright who could have imposed a little of their own sensibility on it might have led to a funnier play that flowed better. 

Of course this could all be me being a philistine and demanding big laffs from a cerebral work with higher things on its mind. But it does feel like ‘Nachtland’ wants to be funny; it often is funny. Making it all go down a shade easier wouldn’t sacrifice its integrity, but rather make its points hit home harder.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Young Vic
The Cut
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Tube: Waterloo
£12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)

Dates and times

14:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
19:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
19:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
19:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
14:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
19:30Young Vic £12-£56. Runs 1hr 40min (no interval)
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