Theatre review: 'Dresden', Sydney, June 2018



By Terence Watson

World Premiere of Justin Fleming’s Dresden at The King’s Cross Theatre, Sydney

Director: Suzanne Millar

Cast: Jeremy Waters as Wagner; Renee Lim as Cosima Wagner; Yalin Ozucelik as Hitler; Ben Wood as August Kubizek (Gustl); * Dorje Swallow as Carl Reissiger (Wagner’s Kapellmeister “boss” at Dresden), Julius Schladebach (antagonistic critic in Dresden), Ludwig II and a Dresdner; Tom Campbell as Meyerbeer, Joseph Tichatscheck (Wagner’s choice of tenor for the role of Rienzi), Dramaturg (an invented character? who advises Hitler on his speaking technique and speechwriting skills) and a Dresdner.

Creative/Tech Team: Patrick Howe (set design), Benjamin Brockman (lighting design),Max Lambert (sound design), Charlie Vaux (stage manager), Rebecca Blake (assistant director), Hannah Goodwin (production assistant), Andrew McMartin (production manager), John Harrison (producer).

After I was reminded by our Editor Mike Day that the play was about to open, I attended a preview performance on 17 June and was so taken by the intelligence, wit and dramaturgical skill of Fleming’s writing, and the bravura acting of the cast, that I returned on 26 June for another viewing, and was not disappointed. You might recall that Mike Day interviewed Fleming for the June 2018 issue 149 (members can login at to read the interview). Fleming rightly commented: “The play, I admit, makes some hefty demands: there are no small parts, no ‘supporting actors’. Every character in it is big.” This is especially noteworthy given the play lasts about 90 minutes—I counted about 25 scenes—but they are very packed minutes.

The title gives no immediate clues as to its content. Although most Wagnerians know the role Dresden played in Wagner’s life, there are many other associations, many of which provide content for the play. Not the least of these is the status of Dresden as one of the great centres of European cultural history. The play is structured in episodes of Wagner dictating Mein Leben to Cosima. Interpolated into this structure is a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, some of which occur simultaneously, which creates a slightly dizzying sense of time travel and challenges the audience to work out what is happening and when. Apart from the time stream of Wagner dictating, there are three other streams: the premiere of Rienzi in Dresden and its effect on Wagner and his career; Hitler’s experience of Rienzi—for him and us, a life-changing and world-changing event—and why it drove him to change the world; and a fantasy stream in which Wagner and Hitler confront each other.

Indicative of the complexity of this overlapping of times and places, Fleming constructs a scene in which Wagner, facing one direction, watches Reissiger conduct the premiere, while Hitler, facing the opposite, watches the Linz performance he saw at the age of 17 years, in some kind of rapture. Wagner receives the accolades of the Dresden audience, while Hitler, a moment later, continues to applaud the performance long after the audience has left. This is both a moving and chilling moment, since it shows Hitler as open to aesthetic experience, but at the same time “twisting” the work and his response into a conversion experience that reveals his destiny to him. The footnote contains information suggesting that this whole episode was probably a fantasy built on an undoubtedly strong response to the performance. Fleming uses the spirit of this episode to good effect to point the contrast between an apparently sensible, good-natured person, Gustl, with a sense of humour, and the humourless, budding demagogue.

Fleming underscores this scene with another in which Hitler makes an impassioned and quite irrational historical and metaphysical link between the original Rienzi (Cola di Rienzo, c. 1313-1354, tribune from May to December 1347, and of whom Hitler probably knew little apart from Wagner’s portrayal), the might of imperial Rome, Wagner’s Rienzi, as a prophecy of his own destiny, and his own warped ideas of rebuilding Germany into a modern-day Rome and saving the German people. This scene is especially chilling in the light of history. Hitler tells Kubizek that Wagner was specifically reminding him of the greatness of the Roman Empire and calling him to rebuild Germany in that image.

Suddenly—the scenes take no more than 5 minutes—we are confronted by a powerful argument about Wagner’s influence on Hitler. But this focus is not on the important matter of the anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic beliefs, but on the kind of Weltanschauung each man cultivated in which such beliefs could exist, and, in Hitler’s case, become incorporated into inhuman policies and practices. For Wagner, anti-Jewish beliefs and practices were part of a larger agenda designed to belittle all competitors, establish an alternative vision of Germany to that of Bismarck’s Realpolitik, and to refocus debate on aesthetic, rather than “merely” political and social, values. For Hitler, anti-Semitic beliefs and practices were underpinned, in part, by misguided, self-serving interpretations of pseudo- scientific explanations of race, a messianic desire for an  empire, and a craving to build a military machine powerful enough to take revenge on the victors in the Great War. Fleming gives Hitler a speech that, like many politicians’ speeches, dresses his delusions and desires as a commitment to restoring the dignity and status of the German people.

This survey of some key scenes in the work indicates the subtlety and complexity of the ideas and history the play covers. Yet, because of the historical range of the play, Fleming has opportunities to introduce comedy to underscore the play’s serious intent. For instance, because the original Rienzi took over 6 hours to perform, Wagner wanted to cut it, but his tenor Tichatscheck refused to allow it. Fleming gives Campbell a deliciously camp scene in which he, in white tights and top and huge black cloak, flounces around an increasingly frustrated and out-flanked Wagner, laying down the law to him: without him singing, there is no show, and he loves singing the full role. Similarly, Hitler is given a scene with a Dramaturg who, in a very modern-seeming mixture of haughtiness and boredom presumes to give the older Hitler advice about how to write and deliver a Nuremberg rally speech. It seemed to me that Fleming might be taking the opportunity to parody a dramaturg or two with whom he might have had dealings.

There are also many moving vignettes. Early on, Wagner and Cosima walk around moonlit Dresden admiring the beauties of the once imperial city. I’m not sure there’s any evidence for this, but it allows Fleming to set up a later scene. This later scene opens from blackness to reveal a rain of dust, with two men standing in it. Immediately, we knew this was Dresden after the British bombed it flat. For me, this was intensely moving, as I had been to Dresden a number of times since 1994 and watched parts of the old city being rebuilt, culminating in the opening of the beautiful Frauenkirche. The two men are in shock as they talk about the destruction and death around them. Another scene in which Wagner dictates more of Mein Leben shows the genuine love between the couple as they cuddle in the garden, with the manuscript pages abandoned on the grass.

As the play approaches its climax, the historical lines converge. Hitler makes his first visit to Bayreuth to beg the widowed Cosima to give him the original manuscript of Rienzi, still safe in Dresden at this time, to turn into a sacred relic for the Nazi party’s headquarters in Berlin. Cosima haughtily refuses, and adds insult to her distaste for Hitler, by giving him a copy and curtly autographing it for him. Hitler is annoyed at not having his wish granted and overwhelmed by being in such close, though vicarious, contact with the Master. The Mss has been lost, it seems.

Fleming, though, with the licence an artist can take with history, grants Hitler his dream of meeting Wagner by putting them both in the bunker in Berlin (following a scene in which Wagner dies in Venice). This gives Fleming the opportunity to imagine a conversation that could happen between any artist and a deluded fan. Wagner is rightly outraged when Hitler explains how he understood Wagner’s “call” across time as a directive to recapitulate Rienzi’s rise and fall. The “call” is, though, what his demented mind read into Wagner’s work. However, Fleming rightly raises the question of the effect of powerful works of art on their audiences, including his own play and its audiences.

It seems to me that Fleming’s implied answer is sensible and plausible: a person who writes the kind of propaganda that dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and their contemporary imitators, want to hear is not an artist. Artists who write works that deal with the joys and anguish of being human do not proselytise or propagandise. But that position cannot preclude or negate the possibility that an artist’s work will be co-opted into the service of a dictator and demagogue. Fleming’s play, though, it seems to me, leaves open the question, central to the understanding of Wagner’s works and his status as a major western cultural figure, of the role played by his extra- artistic writings and the views they contain on such matters as Jews, the status and role of Germany, and the explicit aim to use artworks to effect moral change in society. As an artist, Fleming does not tell us how to answer this question, but he makes us think about how we might answer it, and what kind of values and principles play into that answer. Fleming is to be congratulated for his powerful and thought-provoking contribution to this continuing debate.

The cast responded exceptionally well to the challenges of Fleming’s script. The rapid changes of scene and characters, the complex layering of timelines, the quick-fire dialogue all demanded versatile and energetic performers. Waters, Lim, Ozucelik, and Wood carried the main threads and so did not change characters, but Campbell and Swallow relished the chances Fleming gave them to inhabit a range of other characters, using just small changes of clothes, occasional props, and a significant change of manners to differentiate them for the audience. Waters’ Wagner was a compliment to the real Wagner who was not tall, well-built, blond and blue- eyed, but, whether intended or not, the casting suggested a comment on both the artist and Hitler, who was also nothing like his Aryan fantasy. Waters brought considerable passion, nuance and great timing to his role. He conveyed well the hypocrisy and double-dealing with which Wagner rather too frequently engaged with people for whom he had little respect, such as Meyerbeer. Ozucelik, though, looked enough like Hitler to be disquieting, especially when he donned that moustache later in the play. He brought conviction and intensity to his portrayal, making his final demented confrontation with Wagner deeply disturbing, reminding us that Hitler probably always knew that he, like Rienzi, would end badly, but accepting that this was his destiny! Sadly, for me, Lim was the weakest characterisation. Lim is the opposite in appearance to Cosima, petite, delicate, soft-voiced; Cosima was tall and big (taller and bigger than Wagner), imperious and manipulative (her diaries of her life with Wagner record many episodes of rows, calculated weeping fits, and reconciliations, but also many episodes of tenderness and appreciation). The scene between Cosima and Hitler needed a performer closer to Cosima’s build and demeanour to give it gravitas.

The ensemble was very impressive, showing the benefits of long experience, especially given the split-second timing between short scenes and multiple characters, and the tiny stage in which they had to work. Suzanne Millar’s direction kept the action flowing tautly and raised and lowered the tension effectively. As a Wagnerian familiar with Rienzi, I appreciated Max Lambert’s sound-design using music from the opera, underscoring more intimate moments, as well as giving me a thrill for a moment during the scene of Rienzi’s premiere. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting had not struck me during the preview, but it registered during the second visit as it changed, for instance, from the brilliance of Rienzi’s opening night to a dappled garden, to the falling ash, and the harsh light of Hitler’s suicide. I had not been to the Kings Cross Theatre before, but I liked the closeness to performers of the 80-odd seat venue. Sydney should be grateful for the existence of such vital, valuable theatre spaces, companies willing to work in them, and writers willing and very capable of producing high quality, provocative works to be presented in the stages by such talented and committed performers. If you missed seeing a performance, or, like me, would like to see it again—agitate for a revival!

*If you are interested, Kubizek wrote a memoir about his early friendship with Hitler: The Young Hitler I Knew: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Childhood Friend (2011, Frontline Books). The publicity blurb explains: “August Kubizek met Adolf Hitler in 1904 while they were both competing for standing room at the opera. Their mutual passion for music created a strong bond, and over the next four years they became close friends. [....] In 1908 Kubizek moved to Vienna and shared a room with Hitler.... [....] Hitler moved out of the flat...without leaving a forwarding address; Kubizek did not meet his friend again until 1938.” Ian Kershaw’s Introduction warns us to take Kubizek’s laudatory record cautiously. Kershaw recounts, as an illustration, Kubizek’s account of the aftermath of Hitler’s revelatory encounter with Rienzi:

Another story described by Kubizek, and repeated in countless books on Hitler, also seems elaborated to the point of near fantasy. This is the lengthy episode of the nocturnal climb up the Freinberg, a mountain just outside Linz, following a visit to a performance of Wagner’s Rienzi.... Kubizek has Hitler, in near ecstasy, elucidating the meaning of what they had seen in almost mystical terms. After the war Kubizek remained insistent that the story was true. [....] Kubizek concludes... by telling how Hitler recounted the episode to his hostess, Winifred Wagner, ending: ‘in that hour it began’. But this was Hitler showing off his ‘prophetic qualities’ to an important admirer, Frau Wagner. Whatever happened on the Freinberg that night...nothing ‘began’ then” (pp. 12-13).