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Watch on the Rhine review – Lillian Hellman’s call to arms is a must-see

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Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play looks like the silver screen come to life. It is framed as if inside an old-style cinema, with a rolling prologue in period typeface, the back wall flickering intermittently – a reminder that her plays were numerously made into Hollywood films.

Despite these dated effects, this quietly incandescent play about Nazi tyranny in Europe – and the US’s inertia in the face of it – feels current in the ethical questions it raises.

We meet the Farrelly family in their refined Washington DC home as matriarch Fanny (Patricia Hodge) waits to welcome back, after a 20-year absence, her daughter Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald) who has a German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children in tow.

Impeccably directed by Ellen McDougall, with an inspired design by Basia Bińkowska, what seems like a potential comedy of manners or family friction drama becomes charged with bigger world politics and violence.

Sara and Kurt are anti-fascist fugitives who bring the war in Europe to the door of this ostensibly liberal household, albeit with a Black butler who answers Fanny with “yes’m”. Kurt describes how he was compelled to fight against nazism after watching 27 people killed in the street (the word “Jew” is rarely uttered in this play but lies just beneath its surface).

“I could not stand by and watch,” he says. That message might have been written as a wake-up call to the US which had still not entered the second world war at the time of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1941 – but it is also instructive for us in light of the Ukraine war.

The play’s politics are immaculately couched in story; Hellman’s dialogue zings with wit and thunders with eloquent conviction. The performances are polished, too. Hodge channels Bette Davis to fantastic effect (Davis played Sara in the 1943 film) and is matched by every other cast member, including the three children (Billy Byers, Chloe Raphael and Bertie Caplan, the last making a very charming stage debut). As the play enters dangerous waters it is Waschke who steals this show with the earnest heroism of a man compelled to act – the antithesis of David Tennant’s SS officer in Good, recently staged in the West End.

While its plot has the feel of a twisty crime thriller and a textbook villain in the dastardly count who holds the house to ransom, we are so engaged by what it asks of us and its tension that the melodrama does not jar. Last year the Donmar became a victim of Arts Council England’s funding cuts. This must-watch show more than proves its worth.

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