Melissa Blease reviews Vanessa Redgrave’s Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938, on at the Ustinov Studio in Bath
until 3 August

Christopher Isherwood, WH Auden and Stephen Spender; Oskar Kokoschka, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann and (fleetingly) Noël Coward: if I was inputting to one of those “ideal dinner party guest list” features, this is pretty much my fantasy line-up. The host? Revered stage/screen icon and political activist Vanessa Redgrave. So far, this is quite the shindig – until, that is, gatecrashers Hitler and Mussolini put a dampener on proceedings…

Blending memoirs, history lessons and political polemic together in one slightly shambolic soiree of ideas, Redgrave’s idiosyncratic new passion project Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938 puts the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe into the spotlight, using a salmagundi of private journal excerpts, family photos, touching anecdotes and narrative vignettes to stitch a highly personal patchwork quilt of ideas together.

We’re taken in all manner of unexpected directions as our host becomes the tour guide on a journey that waltzes from Redgrave passing family diaries around the audience to Thomas Mann’s 1938 lecture denouncing the passive attitude of western democracies (Britain in particular) towards Hitlerian fascism, taking in bed-hopping bisexual bohemians, Evelyn Waugh stylee ‘lost weekends’ in grand country houses and all manner of espionage – both romantic and political – along the way.

A small, multi-tasking ensemble (Lucy Doyle, Robert Boulter and Paul Hilton) bring key characters including Spender and Mann, anti-fascist activist Muriel (“code name Mary”) Gardiner, and Redgrave’s mum Rachel, dad Michael and brother Corin to lusty, tangible life against Lee Newby’s plain white box set, overseen at all times by Redgrave who, when not intervening with contextual commentary, sits at a desk in the corner of the stage fondly watching on – at times, Redgrave is Miss Jean Brodie; her actors her crème de la crème. 

Despite it’s subtly bold ambition and captivating eccentricity, however, there are times when Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938 ventures a little bit too close to rehearsal studio/work-in-progress territory for comfort; by the time Thomas Mann (Hilton) ‘delivers’ that speech in full, the on-stage energy – having kept up a solid pace for almost three hours – is wilting under the weight of traversing too many emotionally-charged detours. But a little bit of discomfort is a small price to pay for what is, overall, a fascinating evening in the company of a living legend who has turned a lifetime of fighting for all manner of rights into a memorable, intelligent theatrical party. 

Main image: Vanessa Redgrave in Vienna 1934 – Munich 1938. Credit: Nobby Clark