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‘Watch on the Rhine’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Watch on the Rhine, Donmar Warehouse, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A terrific cast and audacious second-half gear change justify this rare revival of Lillian Hellman’s social comedy turned-spy thriller

‘Watch on the Rhine’ is absolutely not a play that would get written in 2023, but by heck you can see why Lillian Hellman wrote it in 1941.

At first it takes the shape of a slightly starchy drawing room drama concerning the Farrellys, a wealthy American family ruled by Patricia Hodge’s acid-tongued widow Fanny. As the play begins, she’s fretting to her unflappable servant Joseph (David Webber) about getting everything right for the return of her prodigal daughter Sara (Caitlin Fitzgerald). She hasn’t seen Sara in 20 years: she’s been in Europe, but has now returned, with her German husband Kurt and three children in tow. Toss in the added complication of the fact the Farrellys are currently playing host to John Light’s exiled Romanian nobleman Teck de Brancovis and his American wife Marthe (Carlyss Peer) – who Fanny’s son David (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has taken a shine to – and the pieces are laid out for a deft European vs American comedy of manners.

Except that’s very much not the route that Hellman takes. As the projected intro to Ellen McDougall’s Donmar revival notes, the play premiered as war raged in Europe, but America sat on the fence. ‘Watch on the Rhine’ doesn’t quite fall into the category of propaganda, but it’s not far off – Hellman is extremely clear that war was not something Americans could turn their backs upon and ignore.

Fanny and David have only the vaguest sense of what Kurt and Sara do – it turns out they are anti-fascists. He has been actively involved in sabotage of the Nazi state, and is a wanted man. They have escaped to America. But Kurt’s conscience won’t allow him to escape the war. And neither will De Brancovis, who is assiduously working his own angle.

Known for her leftfield tenure in charge of the Gate Theatre, McDougall directs with a surprisingly straight bat here. But maybe that’s what this play demands: it’s all the more interesting for the fact it starts off quite humdrum. Even 80 years on, there’s something inherently audacious about its gear shift into politicised spy thriller. 

And it’s not just about the moment the playwright suddenly floors the accelerator and sends the second half spinning out of control. Hellman had an ear for sparkling dialogue – the way she spends so long skillfully building up her characters is what distinguishes the play from polemic or the trashier kind of thriller. It’s good enough writing that we can overlook the slight clunkiness of the story requiring a random sinister Romanian to be staying with Farrellys in order to have a third act.

McDougall’s production is very well cast. In a rarity on the British stage, Kurt is a German played by an actual German – former Schaubuhne ensemble member Mark Waschke gives the character a charismatic sincerity but also a playful lightness that one suspects might have eluded a Brit fretting about nailing their accent. US actor Fitzgerald also injects a much-needed warmth and sincerity into the potentially cypher-ish role of Sara. And Patricia Hodge is just marvellous, Patricia Hodge-ing the hell out of things as Fanny: she pretty much carries the first half.

If Hellman’s message about the foolishness of American isolationism – both politically and practically – feels perennially relevant, then there’s no denying ‘Watch on the Rhine’ was written for a specific time. It must have been incendiary in its day. It’s not now. But its shift from bourgeoise cosiness to shocking violence remains bravura stuff.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£10-£55. Runs 2hr 15min
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