There are times during Mark Hayhurst’s play when impassioned pleas in defence of human rights and freedom of speech seem so obvious that they almost insult us. But surely that is the point of the play – to shake our complacency and remind us that vicious oppression does not just exist in distant states or at the hands of foreign terrorist groups, but, potentially on our own doorsteps. The play revolves around the true story of Hans Litten (Martin Hutson), a free-thinking and talented young lawyer in Berlin who, in 1931, called to the witness stand and there humiliated Adolf Hitler. In 1933, at midnight on the day of the revolution which brings the Nazis to power, he is arrested “for his own protection” and sent to a concentration camp, held at the whim of a fledgling regime that is sensitive to all criticism; when a fellow inmate refers to the subversive power of satirical cartoons, the play gains added topicality from when it was first performed at Chichester last year. Litten’s mother, Irmgard, takes up his cause, battling against intransigent authorities to secure his release. It is a big ask of Penelope Wilton to convey both Irmgard’s steely will and intelligence, using reason, sarcasm and irony in sharp exchanges, and her maternal warmth; only in the play’s final scenes does the icy exterior melt. It is a central performance which contributes to making this production easier to engage with intellectually than emotionally. There is coldness too in Robert Jones’ sets and Tim Mitchell’s lighting – a grey prison area lies at the back of the stage, the outside world at the front, and beams of light break through large and small windows to cast long shadows. Most chilling of all are the words spoken by collaborators and appeasers – a Gestapo chief (John Light) and a British diplomat (David Yelland) – offering logical explanations as to why Hitler’s Nazis were able to sustain their grip on power. Jonathan Church’s precise, unfussy direction and impeccable acting provide the perfect showcase for a play which is beautifully written and always absorbing.
Performance date: 28 January 2015