They are calling it “the Harwoods”, although the man himself jokingly opts for the more Wagnerian “Harwood’s Ring”. “You don’t think that’s pretentious do you?” asks Ronald Harwood as we sit in the drawing room of his sprawling Chelsea apartment.
The playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter draws on the filter tip of a Gauloise as he considers the rarity of not only having two plays on in the West End at the same time, but on the same stage. “It is an unusual thing,” he exhales.
Has it ever happened before? “No. I’m terribly flattered and, I think, terribly lucky.”
Considering his success, the humility is disarming. The Oscar was for The Pianist, although he had been nominated before — for the film version of his most successful play, The Dresser — and has been nominated since, for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
This particular slice of West End history, however, began to take shape when Taking Sides premiered at the Chichester Festival in 1995. It is a play with themes that have occupied this South African-born writer for much of his prolific career — Nazis, music, moral choices and antisemitism. And so is his new play, Collaboration, which he wrote as a companion piece to Taking Sides. Both works examine the reputations of two giants of German culture under the Nazis. In Taking Sides it is the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. In Collaboration, it is composer Richard Strauss. The question at the core of both works is, to what extent did these artists serve Hitler’s regime? And anyone who thinks of Strauss and Furtwangler as antisemites may be surprised by Harwood’s conclusions.
“I come out pretty justly for Strauss,” he says. “What people have conveniently forgotten is that he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren — [Jewish] by Nazi law. The Nazis said: ‘Do what we tell you or your grandchildren will be in danger.’ What would you do in those circumstances?”
What these works show is that culture has no connection with civilised behaviour. In Taking Sides the imperious Furtwangler is the embodiment of culture. But it is the philistinic American investigator, Major Arnold, who, though bored by high art, is the only character haunted by images of Belsen. “It’s now clear that culture doesn’t protect anyone from anything,” observes Harwood. “Germany was the most cultured nation in Europe. It was writing these plays that taught me the lesson, you know. It’s a terrible lesson.”
In a West End dominated by musicals and the occasional classic play, it is a minor miracle to have a season of two relatively unknown works dealing with high-brow themes and featuring a respected but not particularly starry cast. “I have to say having two plays in London is a high point in my life,” says Harwood. “I’m old now [he’s 74], so it’s lovely at my age.”
A higher point than winning an Academy Award? “It’s very different,” he says. “The theatre is central to my life. But the Oscar was a huge world event. Your reputation is increased exponentially. You get stopped at airports and people want to touch you. But two plays in London — this is my town — is lovely. I’m actually very, very nervous about it.”
Nerves, you would think, would not be an issue for Harwood. He exudes an easy, urbane charm polished by a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of British and Jewish intellectual life. His conversation is studded with quotes from old friends such as Isaiah Berlin, Simon Gray and Harold Pinter.
It was Pinter who directed the first production of Taking Sides, although Harwood was 18 when they first met when working for the theatre company run by legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit.
The life-long friendship ended when Pinter died last December. “It was horrible really,” says Harwood. “He had a terrible time for the last years of his life. He got more and more difficult and cantankerous. But he was ill. We used to play squash and tennis, so to see him crippled with two sticks… We were friends since 1953 — a hell of a long friendship.”
Pinter’s death followed that of Simon Gray, author of The Smoking Diaries, six months earlier. There is a picture of all three of them on holiday in Corfu. “Two down. One to go,” says Harwood breezily. Both Pinter and Gray were smokers, both suffered from cancer and both are now dead. Harwood shrugs. “I like smoking. I can’t write if I don’t smoke. And what the hell. I’ve got another five or six years, max. Jews are fatalistic. My first cigarette in the morning with my coffee is my best. And then I look down and I’m shocked. Twenty have gone already. How lovely.”
Many more will go during the first night of Collaboration and Taking Sides. For as well as triumphs there have been troughs, both for stage and screen. There is a wince at the mention of Baz Lurhman’s panned movie epic Australia, on which Harwood was belatedly brought in to help fix a dodgy script. But the failure that hurts most is still the play Mahler’s Conversion, which opened in the West End starring Antony Sher in the title role. “It was a massive, crushing moment — for both Tony and me. We still talk about it.” One theory is that the play was a victim of 9/11.
“Look at this,” says Harwood as he leans forward to pick up a photographic album. It was compiled by his three grown-up children to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary to Natasha. There are messages of congratulations from many friends accumulated here. There is one from Roman Polanski who directed The Pianist. And one from Sher and his partner Gregory Doran, who directed the ill-fated Mahler’s Conversion.
It reads: “Dear Ronny and Natasha, A golden wedding for a golden couple. Mighteous Mazeltov. It is said that special relationships were born of 9/11. At the same time that was happening we also had a fine play and a fine production crash into a solid wall of critics and become destroyed. But out of those ashes a great warmth arose, the friendship between you the Harwoods and us, the Dorans and Shers.”
“It’s interesting,” says Harwood. “Usually, if you have a flop, you never see the people again. But Greg, Tony and I believed in that play completely,” he says.
Hollywood keeps knocking but it is the plays that are closest to Harwood’s heart. “I’ve done the first act of another play but I’m busy with a film and I’m writing my autobiography too which bored me rather, so I stopped. But I’m going back to it. It’s wonderful in my declining years that I’m still working. So long as I can keep writing.”