Nachtland review – Young Vic, London ★★☆☆☆

Angus Wright, John Heffernan, Dorothea Myer-Bennett in Nachtland. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Can you separate art from the artist? And would you want to if the distasteful name on the corner of the canvass would bring you enough money for a house deposit or two? So is the question at the centre of Marius von Mayenburg’s satire, first seen at the Schaubühne in Berlin in 2022, as siblings Nicola (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Philipp (John Heffernan) find a painting that may or may not be by Adolf Hitler, wrapped in brown paper and stashed in their dead father’s attic as they try to clear the place out before renting it out, ideally to students, says Nicola.

While the pair seek to add provenance to the painting that art expert Evamaria (Jane Horrocks) requires by creating a fictionalised version of their Grandmother’s life that casts the family as being linked to the upper echelons of the Nazi party, Philipp’s Jewish wife Judith (Jenna Augen) argues that the painting is abhorrent and should be sold. In their desire to profit from the painting each character reveals, to varying degrees, a certain level of antisemitism within them – whether explicit, as in the case of art dealer Kahl (Angus Wright) who wants to buy the piece to complete his collection, or an unconscious bias, as with Phillip.

John Heffernan & Jenna Augen in Nachtland at Young Vic. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Written before the current crisis in Gaza and the increasing rates antisemitism in Britain that have followed, von Mayenburg’s text, in a slightly stilted translation by Maja Zade, seems timely but arrives at a moment when nuance is being lost on all sides, much like the argument that arises between Nicola and Judith. Nicola weaponises Palestine against Judith, unprompted, conflating Israel with Jewishness. Yet Judith responds by also conflating Israel and Jewishness: it’s not just Nicola’s criticism of Israel that’s a proxy through which to criticise Judith as a Jew, all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, she says. Echoing current Israeli state discourse around Gaza, Judith frames the 1948 Nakba as an act of self-defence. The assertions go unchallenged, which is disappointing given Judith’s assigned role as the play’s moral centre. You wonder whether von Mayenburg is saying that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

Marber’s direction favours the absurd, but too much so. Its abrupt tonal shifts throw the play off balance as it shunts from one style to another. And occasionally it just seems bizarre for the sake of it, such as when Wright joins the action dancing to club music wearing just a pair of cycle shorts that have significantly excavated in the rear. What gets lost a little in the shifts is that this is often a very funny play – but it should be funnier but there is almost a sense that the whole thing is scared to be funny. Kahl recites a list of people whose work we would need to cancel if we are to completely clear society of the art of antisemites with T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens amongst the list of creators across the arts who have held antisemitic views. You feel play is slightly worried that they might join the list if they misjudge the joke, so play it safe instead. That said, it doesn’t stop Marber letting Nicola’s husband Fabian (Gunnar Cauthery) goose-step off stage having apparently been invected with Nazism.

Jane Horrocks, John Heffernan, Angus Wright, Jenna Augen and Dorothea Myer-Bennett. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The performances though are excellent, Wright’s second entrance (post-dance) is glorious as he fawns weak-kneed over the expert report produced by Jane Horrocks’ droll Evamaria – he arrives late to the play and steals the show. Heffernan is wonderfully guileless as the tragic Phillipp and Myer-Bennett, who replaced Romola Garai in the cast only a few weeks ago, captures Nicola’s self-centred ruthlessness. But the excellence of the performances can’t save an unbalanced production.

When it comes down to it, the plot is secondary to the play’s ideas, acting as a vehicle for a debate between two opposing arguments, and after 100 minutes of wrangling over the painting you have the feeling of being not quite entertained and not quite enlightened but absolutely certain that you probably don’t want to find a painting by a dictator in your attic.

Nachtland is at the Young Vic until 20 April