Audible gasps at the mention of Dachau, the squirming in seats at the descriptions of torture at the hands of the Nazis show that the Holocaust is not forgotten. Its horrors are still horrific, even 70 years later and retold on a West End stage. Mark Hayhurst’s play, newly transferred from Chichester, focuses on one story, that of lawyer Hans Litten (Martin Hutson) who put Hitler on the witness stand in 1931, who was subsequently imprisoned in a concentration camp and whose mother (Penelope Wilton) fought to free him.
The skewed stage, diminishing into a vanishing point at one corner, holds Robert Jones’ deceptively simple set. Look closely and it’s intricately detailed, even down to the blooms of rust on the prison cell door. The costumes don’t have much to do on the SS and Gestapo officers except look authentic and have swastikas on them. But Wilton’s costumes really complement her character. They have the elegance of a glamorous mother, opulent and matriarchal.
Deceptive simplicity infuses Wilton’s performance, too. Her posture is relaxed, her feet shoulder width apart, but her fists remained balled tightly at her sides. She is still, but never lets us forget the rage and bitterness welling underneath. She brings a touch of Miss Marple, using her old-womanly wiles, patience and kindness to get the information she wants about her son. Dignity emerges from her slow, deliberate delivery (a pace which infects other cast members, but with less natural results).
Scenes shift between Wilton’s efforts to wear down Gestapo officer Dr Conrad (John Light) and the various prisons in which Hans is held. In Sonnenburg he has two cellmates: Erich and Carl, both political agitants. Pip Donaghy as Erich is louder and broader than the rest of the cast, but his role includes the satisfaction of mocking Hitler’s ‘novelty moustache and pimp’s haircut’ to two SS officers.
Hayhurst’s script has a lot of explaining – it’s 1938, the Nazis seized power in 1933…it goes easy on the audience and their prior knowledge. And there’s a clumsy heavy handedness in some of the rapport between Erich and Carl as they give each other a gentle ribbing. But Hayhurst also offers profound reflections on the unsatisfactory nature of revenge, on the meaning of motherhood. As Wilton sits placidly describing being a mother, despite the calmness and the stillness of the exterior, there is desperation underneath – not visibly, but viscerally nonetheless.
This is part of the power of this play today. It isn’t an exercise in self-congratulatory Nazi-bashing. It’s an incitement to look at society today, right now. We think Hitler’s dead and yet here on stage, in a re-enactment of events that happened 80 years ago, a man is being whipped for articles he’s written about the government; here a man is being shot in the head for cartoons he drew that mocked the regime. Here is cruelty, villainy that makes the most twisted fairytales look tame and that makes the past look all too present. The Nazis aren’t dead, the fascists aren’t gone. They live in the miserable little minds of the men who condemned Raif Badawi to 500 lashes, the sorry souls of the men who shot five French cartoonists. Here’s a story from 80 years ago – when sane people thought that they had seen the worst of humanity – and it all seems so raw and so relevant.
At one point Wilton says ‘surrounded by SS Officers’ and she gestures at the audience. A few lines later, David Yelland as Lord Allen says ‘we are all sinners’. We are complicit. We’re complicit because our Prime Minister went to Riyadh to ‘pay respects’ to the leader of a state that thinks blogging is punishable by extreme corporal punishment. And because, just as Hitler said on the witness stand in 1931 ‘we have never condoned violence’, so UKIP – whose popularity continues to grow – ‘in no way condones the use of language that may reflect prejudice or cause offence’ after an MEP called a Thai woman a ‘ting tong’, or ‘Ukip does not condone hate, racism or prejudice’ after a councillor posted racist jokes on his Facebook page, and prospective UKIP candidates have to declare that they have ‘never engaged in, advocated or condoned racist, violent, criminal or anti democratic activity’. Forget Godwin’s Law, the fascists are alive and well. They just have better PR people.