Review: Nachtland @The Young Vic

By Searchlight Team

Review by Andrew Weir

L to R: John Heffernan, Jane Horrocks, Jenna Augen

The latest example of Germany’s never-ending self-interrogation about Hitler is the darkly satirical play Nachtland – it translates as ‘night-land’ or ‘night-nation’ – by Marius von Mayenburg which closes at London’s Young Vic on 20 April.

The choice of date to end the run (Hitler’s birthday) may be coincidence, grim irony or a joke, but it gives a flavour of the kind of awkward choices the audience has to make several times during a deliberately provocative and arresting play.

The action is a series of squabbles between a brother and sister and their spouses as they debate what to do with a watercolour by “A.Hitler” they discover while clearing out their dead grandfather’s attic, with many an aside to the audience inviting our view.

The Jewish wife of the brother urges its destruction and can’t believe her husband’s greed and blindness to what Hitler represents, which drives them apart as he cleaves to his sister, to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and hints of incest. They kneel and face each other rejoicing in the financial bonanza to come as they minimise the war and the Holocaust.

The sister’s spouse, having scratched his hand on the painting’s frame while unwrapping it, succumbs to a blood infection which invades his body, forcing involuntary tics in the shape of goose-steps and Nazi salutes, one of the broadly comic moments.

The roles are ciphers for debating positions, making the show more an acting out of a seminar on Germany’s past than a journey into emotion. Which is not a bad thing. The device of the painting forces the cast and the audience to think about what their own stance would be as the players constantly break the fourth wall.

It is not to diminish it to say it would make a perfect outing for an A-level class, or a catalyst for heavy argument in the bar afterwards — the modern German theatre loves polemics.

The actors are superb, from Jane Horrocks’s chilly art expert confirming the authenticity of the work to Angus Wright’s would-be buyer, whose angular features – like a movie Nazi — seem to reinforce his admiration for the artist.

John Heffernan stands out as the feeble-minded brother whose self-justification for cashing in on the painting’s sale mirrors the “but they built the autobahns and ended unemployment” excuses his grandparents might have made. The writer deftly balances gallows humour with poignancy probing Germany’s soul.