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Watch On the Rhine by Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play Watch on the Rhine has been described as a “peculiar combination of drawing room comedy in a genteel…home with sinister corruption of the Nazi regime in Europe…a unique and powerful drama, one strong enough to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award”. The play was written in 1940 before the USA joined WW2, and called for an alliance against Hitler, thereby contradicting the Communist Party’s position at the time – Hellman having joined that party in 1938. The play’s title comes from a German patriotic song.

John Light and Carlyss Peer in WATCH ON THE RHINE - Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan.
John Light and Carlyss Peer in WATCH ON THE RHINE – Donmar Warehouse – photo by Manuel Harlan.

Emlyn Williams directed the London production in 1943, with Anton Walbrook as Kurt and Athene Seyler as Fanny Farrelly, and it was filmed, with Bette Davis, in the same year.

The play’s mixture of humour with the way that Fascism had penetrated American society makes for a very powerful play, even after eighty years, the traditional three-act structure suiting Hellman’s themes very well. This particular production is also blessed with a superb ensemble cast.

Fanny Farrelly, the matriarch of the family, forever droning on about her late husband, is beautifully portrayed by Patricia Hodge, clearly trying to understand Nazism and Hitler, but failing and visibly ageing during the course of the play.

Geoffrey Streatfeild, her son, and David Webber as Joseph, the butler, offer sterling support, as does Kate Duchene in the role of the long-suffering maid, Anise, a long part of the family – always cheerful and positive, especially in the face of adversity.

But the plot really concerns Sara Muller (Caitlin Fitzgerald), the Farrelly’s married daughter, who appears not only with husband Kurt (Mark Washke), a German engineer who is strongly anti-fascist, but also with three children who are very naturally portrayed by Billy Byers, Bertie Caplan, and Chloe Raphael. Hellman is very cunning in the use of the children: not only do they provide light relief at moments of tension, they also highlight the effect that war has on younger generations.

As an audience, we know that Teck de Brancovis is the ‘villain’, but Hellman cleverly gives him a back story so that we almost sympathise with him at times. John Light is excellent in this role, never overplaying it, yet at the same time exuding hatred throughout. His relationship with his wife Martha (Carlyss Peer) is on its very last legs, and still only exists because of her money.

Ellen McDougall’s direction shapes this play to perfection: she knows when to push it on, as in moments in Act One where Hellman takes her time in telling the audience what we need to know, as well as allowing the play its moments of humour, which then contrast with the more serious elements in ways which often shock, as they should.

Basia Binkowska’s set and costume designs, especially the state of the various shoes being worn, are simple yet apt and Azusa Ono’s lighting allows us to focus on both the play and the people in it.

All in all, this is a wonderful production of a marvellous play – the sort of thing that the Donmar does so well. For those for whom Lillian Hellman is just a ‘name’, as well as those who know her Children’s Hour or Little Foxes, I think this is a stronger, more powerful play than either. I urge you to see it!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

It’s an indulgence to sit in a room and discuss your beliefs as if they were a juicy piece of gossip.
Summer 1940. On a peaceful morning in her Washington D.C. living room, widow Fanny Farrelly (Olivier Award winner Patricia Hodge) anxiously awaits the return of her daughter and her German husband, fleeing Europe with their children.

As night falls, dark secrets emerge, and this American sanctuary becomes even more dangerous than what they left behind.

Known for her success on Broadway (The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour) Lillian Hellman was also a brilliant activist, ahead of her time. WATCH ON THE RHINE is her masterpiece political thriller, given a timely revival by director Ellen McDougall.

9 December 2022 – 4 February 2023

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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