Over the last decade, as theatregoing became an even greater passion, I’ve had the privilege of seeing so many of the iconic British greats on stage. Yet, there was always one that I wished I could see and yet I thought I’d missed my chance. That person was Dame Maggie Smith. She’s an actress intrinsically linked to my ’90s childhood through her film career of that period and someone whose stage career in past decades had me wishing I had a time machine! I remember reading in Nick Hytner’s book, Balancing Acts, that his biggest regret during his time running the National Theatre was not finding a role for Maggie Smith.
It was therefore unbelievable news to hear that he’d finally been able to right that regret at his new theatre, the Bridge Theatre and last week I finally ticked the biggest item off my theatre bucket list.
A German Life is a one-woman show, in which Smith plays Brunhilde Pomsel, who through unplanned twists and turns in her life found herself working in the Nazi Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels and over the course of 1 hour 40 minutes, we hear the story of her life, from young girl, determined to make her own way through a job, to a woman who ended up spending five years after World War Two interned by the Russian authorities.
The play starts with Smith entering the 1970s-style Germn kitchen set and taking a seat in a chair and what follows in Christopher Hampton’s new play is drawn from the testimony Pomsel gave to documentary filmmakers Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer, who turned it in to the film A German Life. It isn’t clear if she’s talking to them, to an imaginary person, or simply to us, the audience, but by the end I felt as if she’d been talking directly to me; that it was just us sitting in that kitchen, as she told the story of her life.
Pomsel confesses early on that she tends to forget things now, which was an effective way too of giving a nod to the fact that some of the audience (including, I admit, myself) were wondering how, at 84, Dame Maggie Smith would cope with carrying a show on her own. We needn’t have worried, as she is simply superb, so inhabiting the woman whose story we are hearing that you almost forget this isn’t just Maggie Smith talking about herself.
Over the piece, you laugh with her at some of the anecdotes she’s remembered, while also gaining a chilling insight in to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s and how ordinary citizens were drawn in to their rhetoric. Knowing what we know now, it seems unbelievable that people could allow such dark and horrifying events to come to pass and yet, A German Life, feels frighteningly relevant to today’s world; a world in which intolerance, division and growing hostilities within our societies only seem to be getting worse. Part of the power of this play and Smith’s frank and honest performance is that you leave questioning whether you could have ended up in her shoes, caught up in events the way Brunhilde Pomsel was and for which she states she feels no guilt; she was simply a typist in an office doing a job. the fact it was in the Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels doesn’t make her responsible for the atrocities carried out by the regime she worked for and her attitude felt very authentic and refreshingly honest.
With just one person talking constantly for 100 minutes, in the wrong hands it could feel dull, or drawn out, but Smith demonstrates what an incredible performer she still is and all without moving from her chair. Yet, the fact Smith is in the same seat for the duration of the show doesn’t mean she doesn’t move, thanks to the clever set design from Anna Fleischle. It’s a testament to Smith’s performance, drawing me in so completely and the subtlety of the set design, that it took me over an hour to notice that the floor of the kitchen was moving forward, bringing the actress closer and closer to the audience as the play progressed. It only added to the feeling that you were being pulled in to this woman’s life and allowed Smith to engage with the 900-strong audience without having to move.
This certainly isn’t a comfortable show due to the story being told, but thanks to Smith’s superb performance, it is one that elicits so many emotions, from laughter, to sadness, to horror and more importantly, leaves you questioning what you would have done, while also leading you to realise that as the world seems to grow more extreme, we haven’t learnt nearly enough from that period of history as we should have. We may tell ourselves we’d never let it happen again, but A German Life tests that belief and leaves the audience considering the truth of that statement and feeling deeply uncomfortable at the answer.
Seeing Dame Maggie Smith on stage was a dream come true for me and she didn’t disappoint. If you are able to pick up a ticket, I urge you to do so.
A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11th May 2019. Although the show is “Sold out,” £15 day seats will be available from the theatre box office each morning from 10 a.m. (one per person), TodayTix is running a £20 lottery each morning too and a returns queue will start from 6 p.m. before every show. I also know of friends calling up the box office and being sold returns for later dates, so that’s always worth a try too. For more information, visit the theatre’s website: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/#overview