It came as no surprise that Harry Hill got a rave review in Taking Sides, the latest production at the Centaur Theatre. "Brilliant" was the word The Gazette's Pat Donnelly used for his performance, and "a real triumph was how she described the evening.
Hill's richly varied life as an actor, director and vocal coach has
complemented his academic career at Concordia as an English literature professor specializing in Shakespeare.
Taking Sides, by the South African writer Ronald Harwood, is much like a courtroom drama. The great orchestra conductor Wilhelm FurtwŠngler, then rivalled only by Arturo Toscanini, stayed in Germany during the war and continued to perform. Afterwards, he was charged with being a Nazi collaborator.
In the play, his inquisitor is an aggressive U.S. major who was chosen for the task because FurtwŠngler's name meant nothing to him. The major has just seen the death camps. Outraged, he is after Furtwangler's head. But there is evidence that FurtwŠngler saved some Jews - and he certainly served the higher good" of great art. Where do truth and blame lie?
Hill approached the role of FurtwŠngler with great care. "It was fraught with intellectual and artistic feeling," he said. "The character was more or less without development until the very end."
In the original production, directed by Harold Pinter, the leading role was played by the British actor Daniel Massey, who, like Hill, has a gentle, pleasant face that must be made to convey ferocious arrogance. "[FurtwŠngler] was so unpleasant!" Hill said. "It was a challenge to suggest that such a person could be forgiven."
Hill said that FurtwŠngler's ringing manifesto on artistic expression is his own credo, a bold declaration that fine music, art and literature can redeem the human soul. While he is neutral on the question of FurtwŠngler's guilt, he understands him as an artist, and appreciates the complexity of the situation. ńHow was he to know what the Nazis were capable of?"
Hill performs every night at the Centaur with great energy, then teaches a class at 8:45 the next morning. He has no complaints - "It's not nearly as difficult as the lives of many other people who have to get up early and travel long distances to work" - but his teaching career at Concordia will come to an end in June 1999, when he takes early retirement from the English Department.
Long courted by theatrical producers from Toronto, he has finally been made an offer too good to turn down. He will miss teaching, though, particularly the first-year classes in Shakespeare, when he had the fun of seeing delight and comprehension dawn on young faces. In fact, when he is asked for his approach to teaching, Hill quotes another professor's advice many years ago: "Why try to cover the course? Why not uncover it?"