THE PROFESSORIAL ROAD TO HELL
David Tennant is a fastidious actor. That sounds negative, prim perhaps, but in fact expresses why his performance in C.P.Taylor’s extraordinary play is so riveting, honest and creatively discomforting. It is a portrait of a man – a rather nerdy, self-consciously neurotic academic and author you could find in any University, but whose destiny is to be in a German one in the 1930’s. This is not the thoughtful brave dissident rebel beloved of such period dramas, but a gradual Nazi convert. Though he would find long-winded intellectual ways to deny that word even while putting on his SS uniform in the second act.
This is a gentle , ordinary downhill slope towards the very pit of hell. Dominic Cooke sets it in almost featureless grey walls where Halder and two others interact, scenes rapidly changing to evoke his life’s progress from Hitler’s advent in 1933. The other two are skilful shape-shifters: Elliott Levey sometimes his Jewish best friend Maurice, and sometimes a Nazi functionary; Sharon Small brilliantly turns , often within a sentence, between being his blind demanding mother with dementia, his nervous wife, the lovesick student for whom he leaves her and a SS major. It could be confusing but never is.
At first Halder shrugs off his friend’s unease – Maurice is fondly German, loves his home city and his forest cottage, but has noted Hitler’s rhetoric on Jews from the start, and resents it with increasing nervousness and sense of unfairness (“I don’t even like Jews, except my family”). The academic however shrugs off the “racialist aberration” as a populist fad, something that can’t last since Germany needs its scientists and businessmen for its strength. He is as nerdishly preoccupied with his own feelings as any modern therapy-junkie, though Maurice scoffs that people don’t go into analysis to “streamline their lives” but only to alleviate real agony. Halder is also – and this is brilliantly evoked by Tennant – a fatally impressionable man. He talks a lot of music, bands that haunt him; now a drinking song, now jazz or a crooner, now Wagner or Bach. Once (as he breaks into dance) the romance of a peasant Bavarian oompah when he dreams of taking his young lover to a simple life. There’s martial music too: when he says how thrilling it was to do army service, roaming around with his mates ‘looking for officers to salute”, |I was chillingly reminded of something: the 40-somethings of my teenage years in Hamburg, who would after a drink start telling me, remorsefully and unprompted, that yes , they were in the Hitler-Jugend as kids but they were poor, and it was only because you got a uniform with pockets and your very own penknife.
The way that this weakish, rather self-involved man is drawn into party membership and full collaboration is elegantly, fastidiously shown. He wrote a novel during his mother’s decline which seemed to make a c= case for euthanasia, and Goebbels liked it and saw he’d be a useful-idiot to recruit, this Professor: so he is persuaded to write a learned ‘paper’ about ending the lives of incurables and the ‘unfit’, and to collaborate. He is ordered also to organise a mass book-burning (the bland set suddenly proves able to evoke this very startlingly) . So he confects a ridiculous academic excuse that it has a positive, vigorous side for academia “as long as I keep my own copies”. The deeper he gets in, the more official flattery and perks he gets, the more learnedly preposterous his excuses.
Levey’s Maurice is finally very moving indeed in the immense personal betrayal. Tennant offers a moment, one line, which suggests at last a shaking-awake. There is a final coup de theatre which must not be spoiled, and a curtain call that matters. It’s an experience.
www. haroldpintertheatre.co.uk. to 24 December