The legendary actress gives a powerful and gripping retelling of Brunhilde Pomsel’s testimony in this profoundly intimate production – ★★★★★
A German Life is theatre stripped to the bone. Alone on stage, Dame Maggie Smith recites the life story of Pomsel, secretary for Nazi Joseph Goebbels in the Second World War, with mesmerising charm and emotion.
When the play opens we find ourselves in the living room of another homely set created by Olivier-nominated designer Anna Fleischle (Home, I’m Darling). Pomsel is sitting at a wooden table, sharing her life story which she revealed to Austrian filmmakers in 2016.
What unfolds is a well-paced and convincing historical monologue, from amusing anecdotes about the joys of shorthand (where Brunhilde says she “hit the bullseye” – namely because of an attractive tutor), to her sombre and devastating recount of hearing of the death of Goebbel’s children. Smith is enthralling, even in Pomsel’s imperfections in her narrative – a sudden pause as the secretary forgets a detail leaving audiences hanging on her every word rather than disrupting the smooth, gentle flow of her account.
Making the tiniest of movements in what is essentially a speech to an attentive audience, the legendary actress needs little to no direction, but that is not to say that Jonathan Kent’s artistic decisions do not go completely unnoticed. As her talk develops, Pomsel clutches her glasses in her right hand, a subtle but fitting reference to the piece’s reflective nature.
In an imaginative collaboration between Smith and the creative team, we get as much of a sense of whom Pomsel’s character as we do about her powerful and haunting experiences, including an insight into her love life over the years. Much like Brunhilde herself, we are an observer – one of her unique and fascinating life, into which Smith welcomes us with arresting charm and delicacy.
This review is of a preview performance. A German Life is now playing at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May.