Taken At Midnight
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
11 October 2014
Penelope Wilton is one of the greatest actresses currently gracing stage, film and television. She can do anything, with infinite grace, immense style and pure, unrelenting talent. She is marvellous in displaying controlled emotions: rage, anguish, heartbreak, sorrow, disappointment. She understands the power of stillness and is one of those brave, fearless actresses who transforms herself from inside to make her character totally real and comprehensible.
Wilton is at her magnificent, ebullient best as the formidable mother at the heart of Mark Hayhurst’s new play, Taken At Midnight, now having its premiere at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester under the direction of Jonathan Church.
This is a terrific piece of new writing; spare, engaging, brimming with interest and history. It does what all great plays about actual historical events do: takes you to the time and lets you experience that time through the souls of the characters who propel the narrative, but in a way that is modern, fresh and zinging with power.
The story is fascinating. Prior to Hitler assuming the Chancellorship in Germany, there was a period of turmoil and, as Hitler marshalled his forces and power base, there were those who opposed him. One of his opponents was Hans Litten, a “Jewish” lawyer who subpoenaed Hitler and then cross-examined him into humiliation when the Fuhrer took the stand. Hitler never got over it and, the night he took power, Litten and many others were taken into “protective custody”. Jailed, tortured, demeaned and defiled, Litten never broke, constantly refused to betray his comrades and sought to inspire his fellow inmates. He attempted suicide many times and, eventually, sadly succeeded.
From the moment she learnt of his arrest, Litten’s mother, Irmgard, waged a noisy, relentlessly determined campaign to secure her son’s release. She took on the Gestapo bureaucracy with a quiet, unwavering fury, all behind smiles and cups of tea.
From the very instant she appears on stage, Wilton commands every corner of it. Silent, firm, watchful, a lioness with a single mission – she is absorbing and riveting. Even when she is not onstage, her presence, her behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings, the responses to her persistence – all palpably shape the other scenes. And, of course, this suits the narrative perfectly.
Church’s realisation of the play is immaculate, helped enormously by an evocative and clever set from Richard Jones. The set represents Germany: one half ornate, flourishing and run by the Nazis; the other cold, concrete, death’s waiting room, the hidden, unspoken of price of the other half. The contrast is both revealing and humbling. Frightening and gripping.
The play deals in big themes: the cost of taking a stand; the consequences of silence in the face of tyranny; the differences between how male and female parents relate to their children; the foolishness of “tactful” international diplomacy; the ruthlessness of power; the importance of opposition; and the moment which becomes the breaking point. And it deals with all these in a very human and understandable context.
Martin Hutson is excellent as Hans; he conveys the spirit of a beaten, brutalised political prisoner with startling clarity. There is humour too, and a sense of clear intelligence. Hutson has a wonderful voice and he uses it here to great effect. The scene where he refuses his mother’s entreaties for him to lie, to betray others to secure release, is particularly astonishing. His performance resonates with clarity and complexity.
As Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Irmgard deals in her efforts to secure Hans’ release, John Light walks an impressive line between beguiling monster and affable, but cruel, realist. There is a marvellous scene where he and Wilton meet unexpectedly in the Tiergarten, which implies hope and possibility, and, later, an horrific moment when he lets loose about why Hans deserves all he gets, why the Jewish blood which runs in his father’s veins obviously permits his harsh incarceration. He is very good in every way. Chilling and seduced by power; a study in glamorous, insane, black uniformed superiority.
There is good work too from Marc Antolin as Gustav, Hans’ fellow prisoner, who bonds with him as they bind books in prison; Christopher Hogben (in several roles – a very impressive performer) and Mike Grady as another of Hans’s fellow inmates. Pip Donaghy has the (kind of) “light relief” role as Erich Mühsam, but he seems too silly to fit seamlessly with the rest of the performances – it’s almost a mercy when the Nazi revolver silences him permanently.
David Yelland is outstanding as the English tosser, Lord Allen, who cannot see the danger that Hitler poses and who encourages Irmgard to a conciliatory approach to the Nazi regime. He personifies the approach of the Chamberlain government in a quixotic but shamefully accurate way.
Happily, and somewhat surprisingly, given the course of the play, the final scenes involve a recreation of Hans’ cross-examination of Hitler. It’s powerful, wonderful stuff, funny and vicious at once. Hutson is electric, showing us the vital, intelligent and fearless champion of justice Litten was before his being taken at midnight. Roger Allam, provides the voice of the insufferably arrogant but ultimately crushed Fuhrer. Perfectly.
There is nothing not to like here really- it’s a crisp, clean and clear production of an intelligent and thought-provoking play; and there are many gifted performers.
Like so many other Chichester productions, this ought to transfer to the West End. It’s new writing, absorbing drama and performances of great quality – precisely what the theatre needs and audiences crave. And like all good plays, it will keep coming into your mind for a long time after you see it.