A TERROR AND A TRIBUTE
“May the Master of Mercy shelter them in the shadow of his wings”. A Holocaust prayer is on a slip in the programme for this eve of the Auschwitz liberation, and quiet music plays after the curtain-call for those leaving bereft of speech. Jonathan Church’s powerful, intelligent Chichester production grows in status in the big space, and that it should be played with quiet brilliance so close to Whitehall and Westminster is stirringly appropriate.
For Mark Hayhurst’s play deals with five years from 1933-1938: before the war, while official Britain was still trying to hope that Herr Hitler was, well, sort of OK. It relates the fate of Hans Litten, a combative lawyer who in 1931 had called the Nazi party leader as a witness in the trial of some brownshirt thugs, and in cross-examination humiliated him. Hitler, still at his bierhalle-rant stage, was no match for the angry young advocate. A Jew, too: having converted in defiance of his cautious father (born Jewish, but Lutheranizing himself to keep his job) . His mother Irmgard defended his independence. And when he was arrested the night of the Reichstag fire, Irmgard became his champion, her fight the theme of this play.
It could be tragic-heroic, a harrowing reiteration of what we all know about the brutalities of Nazism. It is both, but also a play of ideas and discomforting truths, both warning and beacon. Penelope Wilton is Irmgard, in a performance so controlled, impassioned, ironic, subtle and perfectly pitched that several of us left the theatre muttering “Why is she not a Dame yet?” . We meet her as an elegant Prussian matron, confident of her status, resolved to be “patient and objectionable” with the Gestapo officials to get Hans released from what, weasellingly, is called “protective custody” against the passionate people of the New Germany. “We are looking after him” says Dr Conrad, the official played with wonderful civil suaveness by John Light.
His encounters with Irmgard recur through the play: she in command of facts, once horrifyingly listing her son’s known (leaked) injuries. But she plays the game, makes Heil-Hitler concessions; he seems to offer hope, even respect, till the gloves come off and layers of class resentment and fanatical belief make him suddenly venomous. Light does it superbly, chillingly, demonstrating that the veneer of Western European civilization can be very thin indeed.
The city scenes are on a bare forestage, but artfully convey through the curve of a desk-leg or descent of a chandelier a bourgeois Gerrmanic correctness I recognize from life there. Behind them, concrete and bars give us the cells and concentration-camps where Martin Hutson’s Litten is tormented. And core to the impact of the play is that we see him with fellow-prisoners: the ironic newspaper editor Ossietsky and the wild-man satirist and poet Erich Muhsam. For all their bruises they joke: darkly mock their situation, to bring home the vital truth that such victims were intellectuals, sophisticates, wits: the brightest. And that their tormentors were envious stupid thugs or at best dupes.
The same withering humorous intelligence sparks from Irmgard: she is often, for all her maternal torment, very funny. Nobody can wither like Wilton, for all her kindly grace. There is a scene with Lord Allan – the British envoy on whom her hopes are pinned – where he havers in diplomatic language that Hitler is partly a victim of “mistranslation” and that Anglo-German relations come first. Set against the viciousness behind, that throws a timely parallel with today’s emollient attitudes to Saudi Arabia. Where , remember, a dissident blogger is being imprisoned and tortured while we fly flags at half-mast for the royal autocrats.
The subject could be unwatchably grim, but the play is not, because its intellectual sinewiness and redemptive spirit shine too bright. At last mother and doomed son meet, and quote Rilke about confronting dragons with courage. “That’s beautiful” says Hans. “I wish it were true” mourns the mother. And he replies “It can’t be one and not the other. You taught me that”. So yes, beautiful.
Box office 0845 481 1870 http://www.trh.co.uk to 14 march