Nachtland – Young Vic, London

Reviewer: Andrew Houghton

Writer: Marius von Mayerburg

Translation: Maja Zade

Director: Patrick Marber

Nachtland is an insidious new play set in modern-day Germany which proves to be as dark as its title suggests. With the impressive pairing of internationally acclaimed director, Patrick Marber, and writer, Marius von Mayerburg, at the helm, expectations are high and a strong reaction is guaranteed with the provocative piece.

A creative pre-set sees siblings Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Philipp (John Heffernan) clearing the cluttered stage with their respective spouses, Fabian (Gunnar Cauthery) and Judith (Jenna Augen). This offers a fun visual and acts as prologue-in-kind for the narrative, which is kickstarted by an unexpected discovery in the attic of their late father. What is initially considered to be a rather kitsch painting spikes in value when the family uncovers its ties to Nazi Germany and the quartet is split on how to proceed.

Mayerburg’s script is consistently surprising and witnessing the plot – and each character’s moral compass – unravel is admittedly transfixing. Like many productions destined for a dark conclusion, witty humour eases the audience into Nachtland, with Myer-Bennett offering particular comic relief initially. Then, hearing audience laughter gradually die into discomfort becomes a fascinating indicator of just how long blatant prejudice can get by under the guise of ‘a joke’.

Elements of this play seem to imply the development of Nazi attitudes within those who put value in the artwork, though this arc doesn’t quite pay off overall. The contrast of characters’ views from start to end isn’t sizeable enough to properly shock, nor totally read as satirical, which merely results in more raised eyebrows than dropped jaws. Furthermore, the most explicit representation of this concept – Cauthery’s intriguing deterioration of physical and mental health – feels brushed away before gaining full momentum.

The production feels strongest, or perhaps most comfortable, when Judith and Kahl (Angus Wright), a prospective buyer for the piece, take centre stage in direct conflict. While earlier conflicts in the show see Jewish identity dismissed with bluntly anti-semitic rhetoric, Augen is nothing but confident and sharp in Judith’s intellectual deconstruction of separating art from the artist. Wright is wickedly loathsome as the self-important and self-serving antagonist who cares little for Judith’s moral messaging, and the pair are powerful in their face-off.

Nachtland certainly succeeds in its clear desire to unnerve the audience and Mayerburg captures the fickle, easily corruptible nature of humanity very well. Undoubtedly divisive and frustratingly difficult to pin down, this production offers a very stimulating evening of thought.

Runs until 20 April 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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