At 84 Dame Maggie Smith has taken on one of the most demanding roles of her career — on stage alone for two hours playing Goebbels’ secretary. The result? Truly Maggienificent! JAN MOIR on her new play A German Life
For just over one hundred minutes, she is alone onstage. The monologue that she narrates neither pauses significantly, nor breaks off at any point.
There are no flashbacks, no video interludes, nothing that gives any respite from the hundreds and thousands of words quietly spoken by Dame Maggie Smith.
Words that pour into the dark hush of the theatre and keep the audience engaged from start to finish. Yes, even from the cheap seats like mine, where Dame Maggie’s face is just a little pink sponge and her voice is occasionally indistinct.
‘At the age of 84, Maggie is back on the London stage after an absence of 12 years. Indeed, following a brush with breast cancer in 2008, the actress doubted that she would ever appear onstage again’. Pictured Maggie in her new play A German Life
Technical problems on this first preview night, one feels, rather than any failure of technique. After all, isn’t this tiny figure in the navy cardigan and sensible shoes one of the greatest British character actors of all time?
At the age of 84, Dame Maggie Smith is back on the London stage after an absence of 12 years. Indeed, following a brush with breast cancer in 2008, the actress doubted that she would ever appear onstage again.
‘It leaves you so flattened,’ she said, after being treated successfully for the disease. ‘I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work. I’m frightened of it. I feel very uncertain.’
Yet here she is in a new play called A German Life, dominating the stage in a performance that had its lapses, but still brought the first night preview audience to a standing ovation.
Sitting in the stalls was her friend Dustin Hoffman, who directed her in the 2012 film, Quartet. ‘Did I enjoy it? It was absolutely fantastic,’ he said, making his way backstage to surprise and congratulate her; one double Oscar winner paying tribute to another.
‘She doesn’t know I am here tonight, but she will in a minute,’ he said.
Of course Dustin didn’t ask me what I thought. If he had, I’d have expressed reservations about this kind of long-form monologue working effectively in the theatre, unless you possessed a good seat, strong eyesight and bat-like hearing. But if anyone could carry it off, Maggie could.
The show’s two month run is already a sell-out, with £80 seats in the stalls currently being advertised on secondary websites for £350 each. Tickets are as rare as unicorns, which is hardly a surprise given her legions of devoted fans.
‘The show’s two month run is already a sell-out, with £80 seats in the stalls currently being advertised on secondary websites for £350 each. Tickets are as rare as unicorns, which is hardly a surprise given her legions of devoted fans’. Pictured, Maggie as the Dowager Countess Grantham in a scene from the second season of Downton Abbey
For Dame Maggie’s theatrical comeback is no fleeting guest appearance in a West End blockbuster or a showy but undemanding cameo in some snazzy, big budget production.
At the Bridge Theatre on Saturday night, she gave the first of 29 performances of a one-woman show in which she plays the role of secretary Brunhilde Pomsel, who worked for Joseph Goebbels at his Ministry of Propaganda.
After the war and until her death, at the age of 106 in 2017, Pomsel claimed ignorance of Nazi atrocities.
‘One didn’t know. One didn’t want to know,’ as her character explains onstage. ‘How can you feel guilty about something you knew nothing about?’
It is the kind of challenging role that would test an actress half her age, but one in which Dame Maggie excels. She tells the story in a soft, neutral accent — no silly German inflections here — in a voice that is almost defined by what it is not, rather than what it is; never wheedling nor cajoling, nor regretful nor boastful — just insistent.
Guilty people always try to elicit sympathy, and Pomsel never does.
The script, written by Christopher Hampton, is taken from Pomsel’s original testimonies.
Here, the stage set is simple; a neat little room, a kitchen with storage jars above the sink, a bookcase, a cosy lamp in the window —all the outward signs of an ordered spinsterly life — although nothing could be further from the truth.
For a start, Pomsel was imprisoned by the Russians after the war. ‘Buchenwald wasn’t that bad,’ she shrugs, teasing an unlikely peal of laughter from the audience. Dame Maggie sits on a cushioned chair, a shopping bag from a German supermarket at her feet, sometimes leaning her elbow on the table as she talks, taking us through Pomsel’s life in chronological order.
‘I must have voted Nazi, like everyone else,’ she says, of the first year she was old enough to vote.
She talks of how civilised Berlin seemed in the Olympic summer of 1936. It was hot, she went swimming a lot, she had a Jewish friend called Ava.
‘She didn’t look Jewish, she was very pretty,’ she says. There is some laughter amid a ruffle of audience unease.
When Jewish businesses started being boycotted ‘out in the suburbs’, she continues, no one gave it a second thought.
‘Not until that terrible night in November. What was it called?’ she wonders, as we all inwardly gasp: Kristallnacht. Her secretary’s eye-view of her demented boss is equally chilling.
‘Goebbels was very well turned out, he had a manicure every day. He was never unpleasant, but he never smiled at anyone either,’ she says, as if she were talking about the local greengrocer.
So how does Dame Maggie cope, alone up there, with the rigours of such a dense and demanding script?
Part of the show’s conceit is that Pommel is old and forgetful now, giving the veteran actress a little bit of cover for when she might stumble over the words, or forget what is coming next. This appears to happen once or twice during this first night — or does it?
With Dame Maggie, perhaps the greatest of all our great theatrical dames, you can barely see the join. Does she have an earpiece prompt, or bits of script hidden among the papers on the table?
Heaven knows, but somehow she gets through the show barely missing a beat.
How did she get here? From the Oxford Playhouse in the Fifties, the Essex born actress went on to make over 60 films. From Othello (1965) with Laurence Olivier to her Oscar-winning roles in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and California Suite (1978), her career has surged ever onwards.
More recent roles as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films and of course the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey made her popular with new generations of fans.
Dame Maggie likes to complain about the huge hats the countess wears (‘exhausting’) and the fact that she has never once watched the show. ‘And now I am too far behind to catch up,’ she says.
She was married twice, first to fellow actor the late Robert Stephens in 1967 and the couple had two sons, Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, also actors. ‘I am a Granny Smith at last,’ she said, when the first of her five grandchildren was born.
‘At the age of 84, Maggie is back on the London stage after an absence of 12 years. Indeed, following a brush with breast cancer in 2008, the actress doubted that she would ever appear onstage again’
Her second husband, the playwright Beverley Cross, died in 1998. In a romantic twist she actually met him first and they were in love, but she dropped him for a passionate affair and then marriage with Stephens.
Cross and Smith reunited later and were happily married for 22 years. ‘It’s odd, doing things and having no one to share them with,’ she said, after he died.
Still on medication following a thyroid operation for Graves’ disease, she now splits her time between her West Sussex farmhouse and a townhouse in West London.
Death, disease, heartbreak, the rigours of a life spanning eight fretful decades — yet here she is, back on the stage, the place she fears the most.
Over the course of A German Life, we learn through Smith’s cool and faultless delivery that Pomsel was so trusted by the boss’s family that Frau Goebbels gave her a fine wool suit. ‘I wore it a lot,’ Pomsel says. She went to their home for roast goose dinners and she was there in the Berlin bunker where Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children and took their own lives the day after Hitler committed suicide.
‘Let them blow their brains out and crunch their cyanide pills, but the children?’ says Pomsel, the only moment when Dame Maggie permits her character the dignity of a tear. ‘How could a mother kill her child?’ As the play progresses, Pomsel’s little kitchen fades into darkness as the bleaching spotlights focus more and more fiercely on this tiny, grey-haired woman.
‘More recent roles as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films and of course the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey made her popular with new generations of fans’. She is pictured in character as the Dowager
She speaks of working in the Propaganda Office, and how they would beef up the number of women raped by the Russians, and of the air raid shelters in Berlin, where she would mend her basket of laddered stockings to pass the time. Working at the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine, could she really have been innocent of the horror? It might be unlikely, but it is not unfeasible.
In the end, Pomsel complains lightly about the indignities of the passage of time and the fact that she now can’t see properly or walk very well. ‘How did I get so old?’ she wonders aloud.
She certainly seems innocent of the terrible irony that growing old was a privilege so brutally denied to millions of Jewish people — like her friend Ava, who perished in a camp.
It’s quite a play and quite a performance. One in which the indominatable Dame Maggie keeps us guessing, to the end and beyond.
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