Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Union Theatre, London

Writer: Bertolt Brecht, translated by John Willett
Director: Phil Willmott
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman


First performed in 1938, Brecht’s collection of playlets about life in Germany was written while the author was in exile, yet paints a vividly accurate portrait of life under Hitler’s oppressive regime. Darkly comic in places, bleakly haunting in others, Phil Willmott’s new production uses set dressing and costumes that mix period elements with contemporary items to subtly illustrate the relevance that resonates through the ages.

From a propaganda broadcast extolling the virtues of a voluntary work programme – and violent repercussions for a worker who does not stick to the agreed script – to a member of the Hitler Youth who has trouble remembering their creed (“Beat, stab, shoot them till they fall…”), it is clear that the fear and mistrust that kept the Nazis in power pervaded at every level. One of the play’s great strengths is showing the humanity in its monsters, making their actions all the more upsetting.

While Brecht’s original work is split into unrelated scenes, its actors portraying archetypes, Willmott and his collective of actors arrange the segments to allow a sense of narrative to take root if one prefers. How much more powerful the tale of the Jewish woman (Clara Francis) who is leaving Germany to save her husband – complete with fur coat that she will not need for months, even as he tries to convince her she’s only leaving for a few weeks – when that man is also the judge who finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of the powers that be when trying a case of three Hitler Youths who assaulted a Jew. Willmott’s bumbling everyman, whether casually deciding the fate of trials in the best way to serve his master or fretting that his son may report him to the authorities for speaking his mind at home, is the emotional bridge between the audience and the life of a people turned inside out by paranoia and fear.

As the Hitler Youths, Tom Williams and Ben Kerfoot embody the psychotic glee of youngsters who have found an agreeable outlet for their aggressive tendencies, while Joe Dowling – the only cast member in full period dress – makes for a fine, if chilling narrator. Feliks Mathur’s wild-eyed SA man, who prowls as if ready to pounce at the earliest opportunity, completes the impression of the absolutely corrupt gaining absolute power.

But the play’s lasting impression is not just as a portrait of how the Third Reich managed to gain, and retain, their stranglehold over the German people in the years preceding war. All too many of its vignettes ring true today. In a world where billionaire American candidates see their opinion polls rise after every anti-Muslim utterance, where the poor are all classed as scroungers because it’s easier to dismiss them, fear and misery (and the paranoia and oppression they bring with them) have not gone away. History wants to teach us a lesson, and productions such as this beg us to hear it.

Runs until January 30 | Image: Contributed

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