Swing in Motion: Review of Propaganda Swing at the Belgrade Theatre
We underestimate the impact jazz music had on the world. When the frantic, earthy, syncopated sounds of jazz first reached the ears of turn of the century Europe it caused a scandal. Propaganda Swing is on the surface a story about the Nazi reaction to this animalistic new music and its struggle to survive in 1939 Berlin. But look deeper and the play is about sacrifice, consequence and the Reich’s powers of persuasion. Based on real events Propaganda Swing tells the story of the last Jazz band in Berlin. Using the classic framing device ‘love in the time war’, Propaganda Swing tells us about the struggle these musicians have with the calculated destruction of their world and the changing face of their home land.
The story is a delicate one, but the Belgrade’s production handles it with sensitivity and grace. The Nazi characters are shown to be varied in dedication and feeling, from straightforward hate to mislead young idealism. Those German characters that are not Nazi’s are portrayed with depth and genuine emotion, each showing differing levels of compromise, will and fear. The inclusion of Lord Haw-Haw, the English Nazi conspirator, is a sharp and necessary reminder that Nazi principles were not confined to the German people. It was his story I was most fascinated by, as I suspect he is a deliberately neglected historical figure.
At the forefront of this productions success is the music. A whole range of recognisable jazz standards as well as a few less known numbers weave their way through the story and the performance. The actors playing musicians are genuinely musicians themselves and work well with the rest of the dedicated musicians. The whole band is tight and polished and give a powerful performance throughout. The acting is also solid, the standout performance coming from Chris Andrew Mellon as Otto Stenzl, a comedian with a secret. His eventual breakdown is heart wrenching and thought provoking, well-staged to make the audience rethink the jokes we laugh at.
There is one tiny irritation which comes from one actor playing a senior Nazi officer also playing clarinet in the jazz band. Because of this he often races off stage with the desperation of someone about to change into a complex uniform, returning as the Nazi only a few moments later. The actors performance, both dramatic and musically, is excellent. However no other band member did this so noticeably and it was very jarring to the action going on around him, which of course he would then enter in character. Whilst I understand the need for the actors to be both in the band and the action, it would make far more sense for those who had to change costume to sit near the wings, rather than to race through the action on stage to change clothes. Put this together with a cumbersome bed that was time-consumingly wheeled on and off for no solid purpose, and the gleaming sheen of an excellent production is unnecessarily tarnished. This is a real shame as without these minor nit-picks this could have been a stellar, international level success.
This is a small criticism and shouldn’t put anyone off seeing the production. The show is well worth the ticket price, if only for the band. With a great story and strong cast on top of that Propaganda Swing is not a show to miss. On until the 27th September. Book now here.