Theatre Review: Nachtland, Young Vic

Theatre Review: Nachtland, Young Vic

The first time I saw Patrick Marber it was around 25 years ago and he was playing a plastic trumptet at a comedy gig above a pub in East Dulwich. I think it's fair to say he has come a long way since then. As well as forging a comedy career working on The Day Today etc, he has also become celebrated in the theatre. More recently he directed Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt and now he is back helming another Holocaust-related work, Nachtland, this time with a more satirical edge.

Marius von Mayenburg’s 2022 comedy set in modern Germany asks what you would do if you found an original picture by Adolf Hitler. Would you destroy it immediately? Sell it and trouser the money for yourself? Sell it and give the money to a Jewish charity to ease your conscience? And, by the way, can a work by a future tyrant ever be considered great art? It's what I tend to call the Gary Glitter question. Can you separate the art from the artist.

The cast largely consists of four characters taking different views - brother and sister Philipp and Nicola (John Heffernan and Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and their respective partners (one Jewish) who find the painting when clearing out their late father's possessions. Then there is a cooler-than-thou art expert Evamaria, played by Jane Horrocks. And an amoral art dealer Kahl (Angus Wright, familiar from Peep Show) who just sees a valuable work of art – but then we are never going to sympathise with him – he first appears dancing along topless in a tight buttock-revealing outfit. You can do that if you are young and in Saltburn, maybe not if you are grey and in Waterloo. Though it is funny.

There is a lot going on here and much to untangle. Along the way we get a prescient digression to discuss how Jews who were persecuted in Europe are now the persecutors in the Middle East. The soundtrack comes from Bowie/Iggy Pop, most notably tracks from their living-in-Berlin era. Music fans will spot another gag – Philipp wears a T-shirt plugging the German prog band Faust - but is Philipp also making a Faustian pact by wanting to cash in on the find?

It's an uneven piece then, with a different tone at different times, ranging from the cartoonish (those kecks) to the captivatingly dramatic (Jenna Augen's Judith singing Bowie's Putting Out Fire With Gasoline). When Nicola’s husband Fabian, played by Gunnar Cauthery, is suddenly struck down by tetanus and goes sieg-heiling mad (never knew that was a symptom of tetanus) he seems to have popped in from a completely different production and then suddenly pops out again. The set is bare apart from chairs and some junk and in front of a backdrop that resembles the front of a bombed out house. At one point Judith disappears into it and the whiff of gas chambers is evoked. 

Whether Nachtland resolves the dilemma of dividing the art and the artist – at one point it is argued that if you removed anyone who ever said anything antisemitic you'd lose a heck of a lot of classic art – remains to be seen. Nachtland – loosely translating as dark place – certainly shines a provocative light on this question. Whether it answers that question successfully is another matter.

Until April 20. Buy tickets here.

Pictured: Angus Wright, John Heffernan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Picture by Ellie Kurttz




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