Still in the company of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Mrs Chrisparkle and I got up early to take the scenic drive to Chichester for our final visit there this year. Normally we only go once a year but this time the Summer Programme was too good not to wallow in it to the max. We arrived in plenty of time for our yummy lunch served at the Minerva Brasserie, the perfect start to a self-indulgent weekend of theatre overload.
Taken At Midnight, the final play in Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, concerns Hans Litten, the lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler in 1931 and subjected him to open cross-examination in the criminal trial of four Brownshirts – the Stormtroopers who handled Hitler’s dirty work with such evil gusto. I’d never heard about Hans Litten, but it’s not surprising – as neither western nor communist governments found his activities useful for their cold war propaganda. Historically, his was a low profile for many years and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first biography (in English) about him was written.
Litten’s nifty questioning humiliated Hitler, causing him to attempt to defend the indefensible; and it would be an experience Hitler was not going to forget or forgive in a hurry. On the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Litten was arrested and from then on was kept in concentration camps till the end of his life. Mark Hayhurst’s play follows Litten’s imprisonment through the eyes of his mother Irmgard, a constant thorn in the flesh of the local Gestapo, never allowing her son’s predicament to be forgotten.
This is a very dramatic and sombre play given a suitably intense production by Jonathan Church’s lucid direction and Robert Jones’ stark design. Plush padded leather chairs and well-made desks brought on and off centre stage give an illusion of elegance and decency in Nazi Germany; contrasted with the barren dormitory and brutal guards of the concentration camp setting against the back wall of the stage. Harsh lighting and sound plots emphasise the horror of the Third Reich, nowhere witnessed with greater impact than in a hard-hitting scene where Litten, along with his two co-prisoners, Ossietzky and Mühsam, are suspended by their wrists and whip-lashed during questioning – all done by stage effects. But the real power of contrast in this production comes from the juxtaposition of the quiet purity of Irmgard’s speech and behaviour, and the violence of the society that surrounds her.
Penelope Wilton’s performance as Irmgard is a thing of beauty. Reserved yet assertive, elegant yet punchy, she is dignity personified in the face of extreme provocation. Her plight as the mother of an imprisoned man, whom she cannot see and whose wellbeing or otherwise she can only guess at, is beautifully and movingly presented; and the way she just hangs on to her politesse whilst sparring with the SS in the shape of Dr Conrad makes you curl your toes with shameless pleasure. The scene where she finally does get to see her son again after so many years is simply a masterclass of understatement.
Martin Hutson’s portrayal of Litten is of a man who never loses his sense of self and his knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but whose understanding of the situation in which he finds himself gets progressively less optimistic as the years go by. It’s very moving to see his youthful dynamism get broken by the prison system and his appearance in the penultimate scene when he finally sees his mother again is heart-breaking in his resignation to his fate.
Although its tone is dark, and ultimately very sad – we all know what is going to happen in Germany during the 30s and 40s – structurally the play leaves us with a sense of victory. There’s no doubt about what’s destined for Litten – a savage light and sound effect shows us with horrific clarity; but we still get to see his courtroom moment of glory – for which he eventually paid the ultimate price – bestriding the court like a Colossus and making mincemeat of Hitler, whilst his mother looks on adoringly. It’s a very positive finale.
This is a splendid ensemble production and all the cast give great performances. Particular plaudits to John Light as Conrad, seemingly reasonable and refined, playing a defensive bat to keep Irmgard at bay until he has no alternative but attack; David Yelland as Lord Allen, ostensibly the great hope that a member of the British House of Lords might possibly hold some sway with Hitler in negotiation, but in reality ineffectual and powerless; and Pip Donaghy as the spirited Erich Mühsam, always maintaining a bright opposition to the cowards who imprison him, unwavering in his taunting of the Nazis, even in the face of imminent death: “Goebbels? He’s just not a funny man…”
A very strong, emotional play with a stunning central performance by Penelope Wilton and terrific support from the rest of the cast – this is an experience at the theatre that stays with you long after curtain down. It continues at the Minerva until 1st November, and I would recommend it without hesitation.