Until now, the reputation of German playwright Roth Hochhuth has remained rather narrowly defined (in Britain, at least) by the controversy surrounding Soldiers – his 1967 play in which Winston Churchill was branded a ‘war criminal’ for the RAF’s aerial bombardment of civilian areas in Germany. Despite his compelling thesis, Hochhuth’s play went on to allege that the wartime Chancellor had orchestrated the “assassination” of Polish Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sirkoski. The result was a mess of legal challenges and the debut production being scrapped.
For his latest play, Sommer 14: A Dance of Death, Hochhuth once again mounts a scathing indictment of Blighty’s cigar-chomping Chancellor. But this time around the canvas is altogether larger, with Hochhuth training his sights on the political chess-game that set Europe on the course for the First World War. Commissioned in partnership with Cerebreus Theatre for the Finborough’s commemorative ‘Great War’ season, Sommer 14: A Dance of Death features Churchill (Nick Danan) as just one of a colourful cast of bunglers, conspirators and conniving politcos whose back-room machinations lights the fuse that eventually culminated in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the modern era. Sadly, though it might succeed as documentary, Sommer 14: A Dance of Death is far less convincing as drama.
The figure of Death (Dean Bray) takes center-stage as the play’s wraithlike narrator who guides us through a series of historical vignettes in which we encounter a host of historical figures who are on the cusp of plunging Europe into war. Unfortunately, by choosing to front load every scene with a tonne of explanatory material, Hochhuth reduces the play to a string of informative lectures. Still more frustrating is Hochhuth’s tendency to undermine an otherwise compelling premise by reverting to pat conspiracy theories in order to press his case; this time around, Hochhuth asserts that Winston Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Lusitania in order to marshal American support for the war.
Indeed, there is something troubling in Hochhuth’s willingness to play fast and loose with history in this way. By choosing to concentrate so much of his time on what essentially amounts to a conspiracy theory, Hochhuth shoots himself in the foot by effectively undermining the rest of his argument. It’s as if Hochhuth has deemed the already barbarous legacy of the First World War somehow insufficient for his dramatic purposes. The means with which he makes his case are even shakier: for example, the moment in which Hochhuth has a shipwreck victim deliver a monologue indicting Churchill for the disaster feels like an emotional con trick. It’s hard to shake the feeling that by ventriloquizing the dead in this way, Hochhuth may well be guilty of plundering a tragedy in order to elicit sympathy for his own partial reading of history.
Director Christopher Loscher and his twelve strong ensemble do their utmost to light a fire under Hochhuth’s play, with Tim Faulker providing plenty of bluster as the irascible Kaiser Wilhelm II and Dean Bray giving a spirited and energized performance as the play’s spectral narrator. Sadly, the result is a serviceable production of an otherwise turgid and questionable play.