Home Estate Planning Nachtland review, Young Vic: Eccentric but muddled satire about Hitler art

Nachtland review, Young Vic: Eccentric but muddled satire about Hitler art

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Nachtland review and star rating: ★★★

There is some biting Israel-Palestine rhetoric in Nachtland, an English language translation of the play of the same name by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg. Written in 2022, the piece has an obviously burning contemporaneity, but that is the only major takeaway in this absurdist satire.

Von Mayenburg’s intention, I think, is to raise interesting questions about value systems, specifically the idea that each of us has a price. The modern day set-up is a grieving triplet of grown children who are cleaning out their late father’s home when they discover what one expert believes is an authentic painting by Adolf Hitler. 

Whether or not selling the painting would mean inheriting blood money exposes tears in the family’s moral fibre, particularly for spouse Judith, who is Jewish. That’s until Kahl, a Hitler sympathiser, turns up to buy the piece. But at what cost would he consider turning his back on it?

Patrick Marber of the smash-hit Leopoldstadt leaves the heft of the work to the six actors, who are left on the bare stage without much hand-holding. They’re set against the backdrop of a crumbling house, perhaps a symbol for war and the transcience of ‘things’. The cast, including Jane Horrocks, each get a decent chance to stretch out, reflecting the diversity of a typical family unit when thrown into this kind of awkward scenario (the awkward sibling, the overly assertive one). Even though this is a sharp 70-minute one-act piece it never feels hemmed in.

The heft of the show is much heated discussion about the morality behind the sale, and some pretty bonkers moments of absurd comedy and movement thrown in to lighten the mood; sometimes they work and at other times they’re a confusing, unnecessary thread.

The trouble might be that the set up doesn’t feel particularly fresh. Or perhaps it’s too fresh and too overcooked. The British TV show Jimmy Carr Destroys Art asked the same question recently, provocatively setting fire to works by the likes of Hitler to ruminate on the same thing as von Mayenburg: what value is there in art made by bad people? We’re also oversold this question in London theatre every year, especially this one with the return of yet another Michael Jackson musical. 

It’s all slightly over-stuffed with ideas, both physical and thematic, and by the end there’s a slightly soupy feel; I wasn’t sure what was being challenged beyond the notion that buying a Hitler painting is contentious. But that’s fine, it is contentious, and here’s a show all about it.

Nachtland plays at the Young Vic until 20 April

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