Today handwritten letters are quaint things to be stashed away to yellow safely, and postboxes seem like surprising monuments, little commemorative crimson columns. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella – presented by Soho Theatre in two separate versions, one in French and one in English – makes the letter a weapon, with the scented charms of the epistolary novel replaced by the vibrantly political and current.
Set in 1932-4, the work was inspired by a news story about American students staying in Germany who begged their friends to stop sending them letters making fun of Hitler. Martin and Max are business partners divided by a gulf widening over the Atlantic. Martin is a gentile, returned to Germany to make a life for his family in many-servanted opulence, watching anxiously for the country to leave its long years of post-war austerity.
Max is a Jew, who keeps the pair’s art dealership flourishing by flogging ham-fisted paintings to moneyed matrons; equally anxiously, he watches over his headstrong sister Griselle. She’s an actress who’s too determined to make her escape from provincial theatre to worry about the risks of taking a part in a Berlin show. As the pair correspond, their interests collide. Martin’s dedication to his country sees him fired up by anti-Jewish feeling, explaining his reasons for ceasing the correspondence in language pieced from propaganda with threads of regretful pragmatism. Max keeps writing, hoping that Martin’s hinted former affair with Griselle will protect her from harm.
Max and Martin’s staged offices present a side by side spot the difference of old and new world style; Max has a Mondrian and a curving slither of mahogany for a desk, Martin’s office is all staid lord of the manor. Each speaks their letter as they write it, while the other is left to react – a repetitive format broken up by moments of eye contact that look only half deliberate. Its not entirely obvious why the text needs to be staged – the format of the letters leaves it only half able to take on a life of its own.
Symptomatically, the text is described as being edited, not adapted, by Frank Dunlop. Steve Marmion’s direction only half meets the challenge of injecting energy into the static piece. In the English production, Simon Kunz’s performance as Max is expansive, oddly childlike, and endearingly wry. Jonathan Cullen, as Martin, is harder to make sense of, and his steep trajectory into indoctrinated hostility feels a little under explored.
Playing news reels and contemporary music between letters does something to set the context, but also makes the experience feel a little self-conscious, a little like a radio play – the piece was dramatised on Radio 4 a few years back. There’s plenty of space breaking up what could be a pat sequence of monologues, but its still hard to disguise the text’s tightly wound mechanism – for a tangle of betrayals and forgotten loyalties, it all feels a little neat.
Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s work gains so much of its meaning from its context. Writing on the eve of the Second World War, from America, her far-sightedness in exposing the dangers of Nazism is impressive. On stage, the story feels beautifully crafted, but slight – a political salvo softened back into something quaint, found in a drawer.