‘A German Life’ was wunderbar.
From the very beginning, when 78-year-old Robyn Nevin shuffled onto the stage as the 102-year-old Brunhilde Pomsel, you knew you were in for a masterclass of acting. ‘A German Life’, which opened at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre this week, certainly didn’t disappoint.
Based on the 2016 Austrian documentary of the same name, British playwright, Christopher Hampton, has adapted over 30 hours of interview transcripts into a 90 minute one-woman-show that challenges the audience to think deeply about their own willingness to turn a blind eye to what is going on in the name of self-preservation. The simply stunning script introduces audiences to Brunhilde Pomsel who lived in Germany during WWII and worked for the Nazi Propaganda office, but is now in her elderly years and living in a nursing home.
Dame Maggie Smith played the role at 86 years of age when the play was first performed in London in 2019. Seeing Nevin’s performance, you can understand what drew these two luminaries of the stage to this part. The role of Brunhilde could easily rival the great female roles of the stage, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – ironically both roles Nevin and Smith have taken on and concurred over their illustrious careers. But what makes Brunhilde uniquely challenging is there is nowhere to hide.
There’s an old acting adage that goes, “if you are actually old enough to play King Lear, you are too old to play King Lear” – the same thing could easily be said for the one woman in this one woman show. Playing a 102-year-old nursing home resident alone on stage for 90 minutes, talking about her youth nearly a centenary ago in Germany wouldn’t be easy for anyone, however, Nevin more than meets the task. Everything about this performance is pitch-perfect; her slight hint of a German accent is pitch-perfect, the way her hands subtly shake with age is pitch-perfect, the transformative way she adopts the gait and posture of a much older woman. The list of superlatives that could be thrown towards this performance is never-ending but even then, you couldn’t sum up everything Nevin does in this showcase of stage acting.
If a powerful script and a masterclass performance isn’t enough, the creation of the world by Lighting Designer Nigel Levings, Set and Costume Designer Dale Ferguson, Sound Designer Jane Rossetto, and Director Neil Armfield, is nothing short of extraordinary. The way the world transforms, from the very literal nursing home, to the metaphoric news reels being projected on the white walls, engulfing the old woman trapped in her memories. The way the sound of the cello played live on stage by Catherine Finnis haunts both the characters and the audience alike is theatre at its finest.
It is rare for bows to play an impactful role in a production. But in the case of ‘A German Life’, when the now spritely and agile Nevin charges back on to stage for her well-earned standing ovation, the audience is shocked by the magnitude of the transformation. ‘A German Life’ shines a light on the horrors of the holocaust and the echoes that still exist today. This play is sure to sit with audiences well into the future.
‘A German Life’ performs until Sunday, June 13 2021 at The Playhouse Theatre, QPAC. For more information visit the QPAC website.
Photos by absPhotography