I ARRIVE 20 minutes early at Ronald Harwood’s Chelsea mansion block, and rather than knock, I sit on the steps outside. I don’t want to risk the ire of the man who won an Oscar for The Pianist and who has two West End plays about Nazi Germany on simultaneously – Taking Sides and Collaboration opened at the Duchess Theatre in May. Harwood is from an intellectual world – Harold Pinter, Isaiah Berlin, Roman Polanski, Phillip Roth and Martin Amis are or have been among his friends. I am a little daunted.
I needn’t have worried, for he is charming and soft-spoken – he even offers me his Oscar to hold. We sit down, he lights up a Gauloise and we get straight onto the subject of the two plays. Taking Sides – first staged in 1995 – is about the prosecution of Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who turned a blind eye to the disappearance of the Jewish players in the orchestra and had connections with Goebbels. Collaboration – first seen in Chichester last year – is based on composer Richard Strauss’s artistic “collaboration” with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, and a coerced “collaboration” with Hitler.
It’s rare for a playwright to have two shows on at once at the same theatre. Was he nervous? “I don’t get nervous,” he says. “I’ve been doing this such a long time. And I’m working with one of the best groups of actors I’ve had in 50 years.”
The modern resonances of the plays are not immediately obvious. Are they about the BNP? Or artistic oppression? After all, he was once president of International Pen, the worldwide association of authors, and fought for freedom for writers including Salman Rushdie.
“These plays are about the moral problem of choosing between right and wrong,” he says. “When people say they have no choice, it’s not true. Furtwangler and Strauss may have had a tough choice, but they had one. That’s why the MPs are in such a mess now – they didn’t know how to choose.”
A scholar of Nazi Germany, Harwood has no time for Britain-bashers. Our democratic way of life means that those (like his late friend Harold Pinter) who compare Britain to a fascist state are talking nonsense. “It’s complete rubbish, just a childish view. People compare Mrs Thatcher to Hitler – what rubbish. You could get rid of her.”
Three-time Oscar nominee Harwood knows Hollywood well, but he loves London, because it is the world’s ultimate theatreland, whereas Hollywood is “entirely about the latest movie”.
He’s nostalgic, too. “When I came to London in 1951 from South Africa, theatre was a way of life. It was the exact opposite to Hollywood: you had to have seen the latest play or read the latest book or you were out of it. I wish it was still as vibrant.”
Yet his plays have shown there is a real appetite for good theatre. “What amazes me is how many letters I get. It’s not how it was, but theatre is still a way of effecting changes in society. You can air a topic that can create a discussion.”
Which, as he points out, is what freedom is all about.