Just like everyone else in the Bridge Theatre last Saturday night, at the moment that tickets for A German Life went on sale a couple of months ago, I was poised over my computer keyboard, with about five browsers open, desperately hopping from page to page to find the shortest queue so that I could book our tickets. The reason, of course, was that this was to be a solo performance by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith, in her first stage appearance in twelve years, and who knows if and when any of us would get the chance to be that privileged an audience member again? And it’s only on for five weeks! Panic!
I’ve seen a few memorable solo performances over the years; Edward Fox as John Betjeman in Sand in the Sandwiches, Michael Mears’ moving account of First World War conscientious objectors in This Evil Thing; Meera Syal’s Shirley Valentine; Leonard Rossiter’s Immortal Haydon; even an Evening with Quentin Crisp and Barry Humphries’ marvellous Dame Edna shows. But none of them can hold a candle to the great Dame Maggie, in almost 1 hour 40 minutes of total concentration and immaculate characterisation as Goebbels’ private secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2017 at the age of 106.
There sits Brunhilde, at her dining table, in her elegant, formal apartment, the set designed by Anna Fleischle but inspired by Fräulein Pomsel’s own rooms, talking candidly to an unseen interviewer about her life and times. And what life and times they were! She’d have you believe that she became caught up in the Nazi administration rather innocently and naively, caring more about Frau Goebbels and their delightful children, than any of the evil activities of the Third Reich. Naturally, we’re a little suspicious of her insouciance, but why would we disbelieve her after all these years? Many of her friends and acquaintances were Jewish, and she seems to take their gradual slipping out of circulation as some kind of sad inevitability.
What Christopher Hampton’s terrific script, drawn from Brunhilde’s own testimony, achieves most acutely is how easy it is for society to drift into fascism and hatred of one’s own fellow man. Of course, it couldn’t happen today, she says, much to the regretful laughter and uncomfortable buttock-shifting of the audience. There’s only subtle, moderate and implied criticism of her wartime activity, because, there but for the Grace of God go many of us, I suspect.
I had seen Dame Maggie once before on stage, in Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, back in 1981; it’s in the vague recesses of my memory but I think the play itself, the life of Virginia Woolf, underwhelmed me, although, as a 20-year-old chap, I probably wasn’t its target market. A German Life, however, is an extraordinary theatrical experience; a gripping narrative told with immense dignity and restraint by one of our finest actors. You can’t take your eyes off Dame Maggie’s face, with all her expression and stolid resilience slowly leaking through her eyes and her words. So much so, that you don’t notice the fact that the floor has slid extremely slowly towards you, so that during the course of the evening, she’s getting closer and closer to us; an extremely clever device that subtly keeps us locked in to the performance – although I’m sure we don’t need it.
I was struck by her vocal delivery throughout the entire performance. To emphasise both the age of the character, and how she’s thinking hard before she responds to her unseen questioner, she gives much more weight to an adjective in the phrase than the noun. It’s all about her describing what she saw and how she felt, more than simply naming it. She revels in the adjective; after a short pause, the noun is often thrown away. Once you cotton on to that style, it brings you even closer to the character and her vulnerability.
A technical masterclass from the 84-year-old Dame Maggie. The feat of memory, to recall all those lines, apparently effortlessly with no cues from other performers, is astounding in itself. But it’s so much more than that. Tour-de-force isn’t enough; it’s simply extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, the run is totally sold out, but some day seats are available from 10am. Get queuing!
P. S. Don’t be alarmed when Dame Maggie confesses that she’s lost her thread, it’s Brunhilde talking – you’re in very capable hands.
P. P. S. Talking of Edward Fox, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) quite a star-studded audience as I spotted the renowned Mr Fox in the bar and Sir Trevor Nunn heading towards the toilets. All human life was there!
Production photos by Helen Maybanks