Watch on the Rhine: a tale of spirited resistance that’s more curio than classic

Mark Waschke, Bertie Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Chloe Raphael and Billy Byers in the Donmar's Watch on the Rhine - Manuel Harlan
Mark Waschke, Bertie Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Chloe Raphael and Billy Byers in the Donmar's Watch on the Rhine - Manuel Harlan

While Lillian Hellman probably remains best-known for her play about false accusation and lesbian insinuation The Children’s Hour (1934), lasting admiration for her stems too from her courage amid a real-life witch-hunt: the outing and purging of supposed communists in post-war America.

At its better, mainly later moments, the more seldom seen Watch on the Rhine – which premiered in April 1941 and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Bette Davis in 1943 – valuably conveys an inspiring resolve in the face of fear. In resonant lines at the end of Ellen McDougall’s Donmar revival, Mark Waschke’s Kurt, a German engineer whose mission has long been to combat fascism, leaves his wife and three children in the sanctuary of his mother-in-law’s plush home outside Washington, plotting his way back to Europe and the insane perils of Germany.

His stirring words of reassurance run: “In every town and every village all across the world there is always someone who loves children and who will fight to make a good world for them.” You can see why President Roosevelt ordered a command performance at the White House in January 1942, in the wake of America finally entering the war. And the image of self-sacrificing care, however sentimentally (and quasi-socialistically) expressed, carries added force today in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

Such pertinence and universality as the play possesses, though, are undermined by its oddly flimsy construction and peculiar serio-comic air, soft-pedalling about the realities of what was happening in Europe. Was American neutrality, plus Germany and the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact, lasting until June 1941 (and testing Hellman’s communist sympathies), a factor? Or was it more because she aimed to engage audiences by entertaining stealth, something the tide of history forced anyway?

The result is a piece that fascinates as a flawed document of its time, less so as a loaded family drama, nominally spiced with thrillerish intrigue in the form of a needy, fascistic Romanian house-guest (uber-stern John Light).

Not all the performances overcome the latent awkwardness, Patricia Hodge straining a little between flustered neurosis and affected insouciance as the waspish Washington matriarch whose off-hand manner masks a slow-burn concern. At times, too, we get a sense of British actors abroad in assumed American identities, their forged paperwork detectable. Still, both Waschke and Caitlin Fitzgerald (in the Bette Davis role of Sara Muller) convince as a couple hardened yet humanised by all they’ve faced, with some touching wide-eyed charm supplied by their uprooted children (Billy Byers, Chloe Raphael and impish Bertie Caplan on opening night). Watchable then – but more curio than classic.

Until Feb 4. Tickets: 020 3282 3808; donmarwarehouse.com