Inhabiting herstory

A German Life (The Gordon Frost Organisation)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 2 -13

Australian actress, director and former head of both the Queensland Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company, Robyn Nevin AO is the type of figure who deserves applause upon her every stage entrance, which is exactly what deservingly happens at the outset of Christopher Hampton’s powerful play, “A German Life”. Far from any of her familiar previous stage or screen characters, however, Nevin is playing Brunhilde Pomsel. And her inhabit of the character is immediate, as she shares the extraordinary story of the unassuming elderly German woman with a controversial past despite just doing what she saw as her job.

The critically-acclaimed play, which was compiled from testimony of the then 103-year-old Pomsel for the 2014 documentary of the same name, similarly brings together her essential but very personal story from 30 hours of interviews from her Munich nursing home in 2013. It is a challenging role to which Nevin brings an engaging empathy to humanise a figure behind the history, even as Pomsel sets about describing her first impressions of Goebbels, encounters with ‘the party’ propaganda events and initial reactions to a rally experience. As reflective as initial sections are, however, there is also an emerging sense of the defiant strength needed to survive in Pomsel’s discussion of guilt, requiring a layered, nuanced performance that Nevin delivers in abundance as, with German accent and unhurried manner while she sometimes searches for the most accurate word, she hesitantly but determinedly tells herstory.  

From the play’s outset Nevin’s engaging storytelling style as Pomsel holds the entire Playhouse in silent attention. In particularly, her evocative recall of the experience of having her home bombed along with Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, takes us back to the time only a few generations ago and into her personal story. There is also some humour from her frankness and ironic commentary of how nobody would be stupid enough now to follow false leaders and be so easily manipulated by the misrepresentation of truth and facts within politics. Without doubt, the show’s solemn subject matter is made accessible and not just arresting, though Nevin’s pitch perfect performance in sharing Pomsel’s story. However, the work also doesn’t shy away from its confronting moral considerations, such is its intelligent approach and invitation into debate around the concepts of culpability and courage.

Nigel Levings’s lighting design warms the storytelling and darkens us into Pomsel’s recollections, which are accompanied by historical archival footage from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, projected on the set walls. It is here too that Catherine Finnis’s cello interludes solidify the solemn sentiment at the centre of the story. The occasional sounds of the solo musician, complement not only the multi-media moments, but also work with the show’s simple staging, befitting its focus on a small life story as part of bigger history. A detailed approach and attention in its detail enhances authenticity as Pomsel potters about the place with daily duties making tea and engaging in the routines of her day, all the while conveying a sense of loneliness beneath her reassurance as to her comfort in being alone, such is the truth of Nevin’s sustained performance.  

In Robyn Nevin’s hands “A German Life” is an absolute triumph. And its story, comprised of everyday anecdotes that suddenly become significant, offers illustration of the statement that history is about ordinary people living ordinary lives, while all around them the world is changing. Indeed, it balanced lack of self-aggrandising or over-sympathising instils “A German Life” with an appealing authencity that also serves to remind us that small personal stories exist alongside the grander ones that come to define history… and as such it is represents essential viewing.

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