Reviews are in for the Donmar Warehouse’s new revival of Lillian Hellman’s political thriller Watch on the Rhine.
The cast includes Patricia Hodge as Fanny Farrelly, Kate Duchêne as Anise and Caitlin FitzGerald as Sara Muller.
Joining them are John Light (Teck de Brancovis), Carlyss Peer (Marthe de Brancovis), Geoffrey Streatfeild (David Farrelly), Mark Waschke (Kurt Muller) and David Webber (Joseph), Finley Glasgow (Joshua Muller), Tamar Laniado and Chloe Raphael (Babette Muller), Bertie Caplan and Henry Hunt (Bodo Muller).
Directed by Ellen McDougall, this is the first major London revival for Watch on the Rhine for 40 years, and it started previewing on 9 December 2022. The show runs to 4 February 2023.
Watch on the Rhine is designed by Basia Bińkowska, with lighting design by Azusa Ono, sound design by Tingying Dong, fight direction by Cristian Cardenas, musical direction by Josh Middleton, video design by Sarah Readman, casting director Anna Cooper CDG, dramaturgy by Emma Jude Harris and Zoe Svendsen, voice and dialect coaching by Nia Lynn. Anti-racism consultancy for the production is provided by mezze eade.
Read reviews below from The Stage, the Evening Standard and more, The Times, TimeOut, The Observer and more.
Watch on the Rhine reviews
"Urgent revival of a searing, 80-year-old wartime drama"
"Equal parts wartime thriller, tart drawing-room comedy and rousing call to arms against the rising evil of fascism, this drama by Jewish-American playwright and activist Lillian Hellman examines a fascinating historical turning point with extraordinary, incisive clarity."
"... Ellen McDougall’s precise and insightful production ensures that every line and gesture is packed with unspoken subtext, contributing to a dangerous, unsettled atmosphere that remains oppressively present."
"... Patricia Hodge’s daunting matriarch Fanny Farrelly is a powerful, patrician presence whose prim, poised demeanour can’t hide her shock at the events unfolding in her home. Hodge injects plenty of subtle warmth into Farrelly’s non-stop barrage of icy witticisms, investing the character with mischievous charm."
"Movingly acted but the play feels like a museum piece"
"A handsomly mounted production and Lillian Hellman’s play has a message that chimes with today, it just feels very dated"
"The message – that you can’t equivocate over or ignore fascism, however distantly it flowers – chimes with our times. Ellen McDougall’s production is crisp and movingly acted, but I’ve no idea why the Donmar revived something so old-fashioned."
"The play moves from arch comedy to impassioned rhetoric to a shocking act of violence, before concluding on a note of outright sentiment."
"A terrific cast and a still-audacious second half gear change justify this rare revival of Lillian Hellman’s dramas"
"Known for her leftfield tenure in charge of the Gate Theatre, McDougall directs with a surprisingly straight bat here. But maybe that’s what this play demands: it’s all the more interesting for the fact it starts off quite humdrum. Even 80 years on, there’s something inherently audacious about its gear shift into politicised spy thriller."
"Hellman had an ear for sparkling dialogue – the way she spends so long skillfully building up her characters is what distinguishes the play from polemic or the trashier kind of thriller. It’s good enough writing that we can overlook the slight clunkiness of the story requiring a random sinister Romanian to be staying with Farrellys in order to have a third act."
"Patricia Hodge shines in a dowdy drawing room drama"
"The wonderful Patricia Hodge is just about incapable of giving a bad performance, so it’s possible to spend the whole of this rare revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1941 hit play admiring the actress’s portrayal of an imperious Wasp matron confronted with the reality of Nazism. It’s as if the ghosts of Lauren Bacall and Margaret Rutherford were communing over a martini.
"Otherwise it seems strange that the Donmar and the director Ellen McDougall want to exhume a piece that, while it preached the right message for its era — America was still sitting on the sidelines when the original production opened on Broadway — now seems awkwardly melodramatic. Yes, we live in Trumpian times, but I’m not sure modern audiences need to be educated on the threat posed by the swastika."
"Lillian Hellman’s call to arms is a must-see"
"Patricia Hodge stars in Hellman’s play about a liberal American family confronted by war in Europe and the dangers of inaction"
"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."
"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."
"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..."
"A tale of spirited resistance that’s more curio than classic"
"The Donmar's revival of this wartime drama about sacrifice has stirring echoes with Ukraine but is undermined by its serio-comic tone"
"Such pertinence and universality as the play possesses, though, are undermined by its oddly flimsy construction and peculiar serio-comic air, soft-pedalling about the realities of what was happening in Europe."
"Not all the performances overcome the latent awkwardness, Patricia Hodge straining a little between flustered neurosis and affected insouciance as the waspish Washington matriarch whose off-hand manner masks a slow-burn concern."
"Watchable then – but more curio than classic."
"Lillian Hellman’s call to arms is stirring but stodgy"
"The writer’s 1941 play – here starring Patricia Hodge – follows an American family confronted with the perils of war in Europe"
"It’s a bit stodgy and slightly simplistic, but undoubtedly stirring once the tightly wound plot mechanism starts to uncoil."
"[Mark] Waschke beautifully conveys the quietly burning passion and idealism of an anti-fascist campaigner whom Hellman, herself a committed Jewish communist, was careful not to make Jewish for commercial reasons. [Caitlin] Fitzgerald is wonderful as a woman who is resilient and indefatigable in both her love and her convictions. Her watchful, haunted eyes speak volumes and Kurt and Sara constitute a rare and touching dramatic portrait of long-term marital happiness."
"[Patricia] Hodge gives a characteristically imperious performance, which develops beguiling shades of nuance."
"Donald Trump must see this"
"This revival about US wartime isolationism is gripping and timely."
"Ellen McDougall’s production whacks you with its seriousness and manliness."
"Hellman’s plot creaks in places, but this is a gripping show, well acted, handsomely staged. Patricia Hodge brings stately assurance and humour as the house’s drawling chatelaine. Caitlin FitzGerald is perfect as the beautiful Sara, resilient in the jaws of sacrifice. The children are exceptionally good."
"This 1941 drama might feel creakily of its period in places, but the frustration that drives it comes spilling off the stage in Ellen McDougall’s fine new production, the better to rattle the consciences of today’s audience about the luxury of polite debate in the face of crisis."
"The play is awkwardly engineered, sentimental and melodramatic, and the sinister aristocrat is little better than a moustachioed villain, despite John Light working to invest him with a ragged desperation of his own. But McDougall pulls against that with beautifully detailed performances..."
"Key to the whole affair is Hodge’s subtle and intricate performance as Fanny."
"Lillian Hellman’s 1941 call to arms resonates anew"
"Ellen McDougall’s handsome, convinced production speaks to today’s fear of the rise of dictatorship and new fissures between east and west."
"It is, though, a play strangely at odds with itself. Hellman was both wit and political visionary – not necessarily exclusive categories, but in her case uncomfortably manacled to each other. Her call to arms is unassailable, its execution sometimes stiff."
"Memorable performances too. Patricia Hodge authoritatively embodies the grand grandmother – indulged, once adored, bristling and barking as an elderly widow."
"A must-see comedy-drama that turns into something more sinister"
"Lillian Hellman's 1941 play was intended as a wake-up call to America."
"Director Ellen McDougall resists the impulse to semaphore parallels with any current political turmoil."
"As it accelerates from uncomfortable comedy-drama to something more sinister the initial lightness of tone pays dividends; a late sequence of shocking violence introduces the question of moral justification as well as leaving the family - and us - shaken and stirred."