Graham Till loves theatre above all which makes you think.
“I am happy to think about or do comedy, but I would always want it to have some kind of hard interior life that makes you think about your own experiences.
“Froth is great in the theatre, but substance is better.”
And he has certainly got the latter in abundance when he takes to the stage in Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood, directed by Mike Wells for Wick Theatre Company’s autumn production.
The piece centres on the musical powerhouse, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, one of the most famous and celebrated musicians in a land which is devoted to classical music.
His leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and recreations of the music of Wagner, Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms are seen as the greatest in the world. He was also known to have helped Jews escape from Hitler’s Germany, yet after the war ended, he was investigated for collaboration.
Harwood’s play takes place in the American Zone of occupied Berlin, in 1946. The American De-Nazification Tribunal has taken over the questioning of Wilhelm Furtwängler. As the terrors of Nazism spread, many of Furtwängler’s colleagues fled the country, but Furtwängler mysteriously chose to stay. Did he stay to do as much good as possible in the face of evil or did he stay to serve Hitler? In the duel between the great conductor and the sceptical US investigator, we are also invited to take sides. As more revelations about the great man emerge, it becomes harder and harder to know what to think…
It’s a fascinating piece says Graham who plays Helmut Rode: “It is a play that insists, in ways that other plays don’t, that we think. It insists that we concentrate and that we transfer what is happening to our own experiences. It makes us think about the moral lessons, about how we would behave. It makes us think about the world around us now. It makes us start thinking about how we make moral judgements and it makes us think that history is important.”
Graham senses that it will all have distinct echoes with what is happening in our world today.
There are elements of court-room drama about the play, Graham feels: “You have got the protagonists and the drama comes from that. It is for you to bring it out. It is that court room feel that Harwood has gone for. But the setting is not remotely a court room. It is set in the ruins of post-war Berlin in the makeshift office of the American army major.
“The American major is brash and loud and vulgar and swearing. When Furtwängler appears, he is this noble, stately, civilised gentleman.”
And so the one is pitched against the other. In the fraught and bitter atmosphere of post-war Berlin, an almost operatic drama is played out which challenges us to consider what we would have done and to make us examine our own priorities.
Graham is playing a man who was second violinist in one of Furtwängler’s orchestras, a man who offers the telling line: “You don’t know what it’s like to wake up to a power so terrifying, so immense, that all you can think of is you have to be part of it otherwise you will be eaten alive.”
As Graham says: “Furtwängler argues with himself as well, whether his action were right. Should he have left before the war? Should he have done what he did? Even he doesn’t know the answers any more than the rest of us. Taking sides…. You can’t just say ‘The major was right. He was a collaborator.’ Or ‘The conductor was right. He did what he had to do.’ As I said, it is a play that makes you think.”
Taking Sides will be at the Barn Theatre, Southwick, BN42 4TE from October 2-5,priced at £12. 01273 597094 or wicktheatre.co.uk.