'Vienna 1934-Munich 1938': Theater Review

Nobby Clark
Vanessa Redgrave in 'Vienna 1934-Munich 1938'
A bumpy but mostly rewarding deep dive into the past.
8/3/2019

Vanessa Redgrave devised, directs and co-stars in this highly personal patchwork of family biography and dark warnings from history.

Vanessa Redgrave combines family memoir, history lesson, poetry, drama and political polemic in her ambitious new passion project, Vienna 1934-Munich 1938. As director, co-star and de facto author, the venerable 82-year-old stage and screen icon draws on her lifelong involvement with left-wing causes to revisit the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe via a patchwork of biographical quotes, narrative vignettes and gossipy anecdotes.

Redgrave's core cast of characters is small, but the background cameo list reads like the glitziest jazz-age cocktail party ever, from Sigmund Freud and Oskar Kokoschka to Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden and Thomas Mann. Alas, Hitler and Mussolini gate-crash the festivities midway through. And those guys are no fun.

Cumbersomely structured, and overlong at two-and-a-half hours, Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 sometimes feels as ungainly and unpolished as its workmanlike title. First workshopped with three tryout performances at a suburban London theater in February, this official premiere version still has a work-in-progress feel in places, with too many untidy detours and half-digested chunks of pure text.

But once you relax into its disheveled, disjointed rhythms, there is a treasure trove of fascinating material here, including dog-eared private journals and fading family photos that Redgrave personally shares with her intimate audience. Brought vividly alive by its energetic three-person cast, all playing multiple roles, Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 is an uneven but disarmingly eccentric theatrical experience. Following its Theatre Royal Bath premiere, the no-frills production could easily transfer to other stages on the strength of Redgrave's star power, not to mention its depressingly timely political subtext.

Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 pays fond homage to a lost chapter in European history, when the bed-hopping bohemian upper classes on both sides of the Atlantic became besotted with both socialism and communism, and rose to the challenge of confronting fascism. In between wild bisexual trysts and idyllic poetry-reading weekends in grand country houses, they signed up in their masses to fight Franco's army in Spain. At times this production feels like a Noel Coward play with added espionage subplots by Graham Greene. Indeed, Coward himself even makes a fleeting cameo.

Redgrave opens the production alone onstage, laying out her intentions, filling in historical context and outlining her cast of characters. This low-voltage cold start feels ominously like a starchy lecture from an absent-minded professor.

Thankfully, the story comes alive when Redgrave withdraws to an upstage perch to observe Lucy Doyle, Robert Boulter and Paul Hilton inhabit the play's historical re-enactments. Their shared scenes are driven not by conventional dialogue but by biographical quotes, mostly lifted directly from memoirs penned by their real-life counterparts. Although these characters interact physically, they chiefly address the audience, not each other. Punctuated by bursts of poetry, newsreel clips, paintings and maps, Redgrave's outwardly old-fashioned production is more of an experimental multimedia hybrid than it first appears.

At the heart of Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 is a bizarre coincidence that Redgrave addresses only fleetingly. In 1977, she starred opposite Jane Fonda as the eponymous Julia in Fred Zinnemann's film of the same name, which earned her an Academy Award. Drawn from a controversial, legally contentious memoir by Lillian Hellman, the Julia character was modeled on Muriel Gardiner, a wealthy Chicago heiress who became involved with underground socialist groups while studying psychiatry in 1930s Vienna, helping to smuggle Jews out of Austria as fascism took hold and Nazi annexation loomed.

Hellman denied basing Julia on Gardiner, but the similarities are so strikingly specific that most biographers now accept she was the inspiration. Around the same time, Gardiner had a brief but passionate romance with the bisexual English poet Spender, whose long list of lovers also included Redgrave's own actor father, Michael. Both Spender and Redgrave Senior also had stormy affairs with another fringe character in Vienna 1934-Munich 1938, Tony Hyndman, despite both being married to women at the time. Hence the old adage, presumably, that love is a many-Spendered thing.

At the time she played Julia, Redgrave was unaware of this family connection: not so much six degrees of separation, more like two. Reinforcing these uncanny historical echoes, Boulter plays both Spender and Michael Redgrave here while Doyle portrays both Gardiner and Redgrave's own mother, Rachel Kempson. Their shape-shifting, athletic performances lend lusty conviction to antique prose that might otherwise have seemed arid and remote. Doyle is particularly impressive in her professional stage debut, betraying no hint of inexperience with her poised, coquettish mannerisms.

Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 stumbles in its final act, particularly during a climactic 1938 speech by Mann (Hilton, who appeared with Redgrave in the Broadway-bound West End hit, The Inheritance), which excoriates the British ruling class for sacrificing central Europe in return for a bogus peace pact with Hitler. History would prove Mann's damning verdict prophetic, but it feels clumsily inserted here, with no organic link to the personally slanted material that Redgrave mines so fruitfully elsewhere.

A little more finessing and streamlining could shape Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 into a more generally accessible, digestible form. But as it stands, this engagingly offbeat vanity project feels almost like a real-time rummage through the cobwebbed attic of Redgrave's mind: the haphazard but sporadically riveting ramblings of a living legend still wrestling with the grand ideological battles of the 20th century.

Venue: Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Boulter, Lucy Doyle, Paul Hilton
Director-playwright: Vanessa Redgrave
Set and costume designer: Lee Newby
Lighting designer: Ben Ormerod
Presented by Theatre Royal Bath, Rose Theatre Kingston