Writer: Mark Hayhurst
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Niall Harman
Surely the ultimate fantasy of any lawyer would be to be able to cross-examine Adolf Hitler on the witness stand? Mark Hayhurst’s new playTaken at Midnightis the story of Hans Litton, the man who in 1931 did just that, and the astonishing impact it had on him and his family. This fascinating story makes for a play that is powerful, absorbing and surprisingly very funny.
The play opens with a bare-bones set and Hans (Martin Hutson) at the rear of the stage, imprisoned and sandwiched between a pair of Nazi guards, while his mother Imgard (Penelope Wilton) begins to recount his tale. Mother and son appear on stage together repeatedly but remain divided by Hans’ incarceration. When the Nazis stormed to power and burned the Reichstag parliament building, many were arrested, including Hans, taken from his home in the dead of night to a concentration camp, hence the title. Here he meets Carl and Erich, the latter a source of much-needed comic effect in an unsurprisingly dark and bleak tale. Several years pass and the Nazis grow ever more powerful, but Imgard refuses to give in and continues trying to be reunited with her jailed son.
For anyone with a basic history of the Nazi regime, many events in this play will not surprise, but the production handles these horrors well and despite their inevitability they still shock and pack an emotional punch. One scene, in particular, late in the slightly messy first act sees Erich making the audience laugh while they sit on the edge of their seats as his armed captors close in. This makes for a slightly uncomfortable experience, but it is a rare and rather brilliant theatrical example of tension and hilarity building seamlessly at the same time.
The performances are universally excellent. Wilton proves again to be a dramatic force as the once quiet mother enlivened and impassioned by the actions of her son and the actions of those who oppose how he questioned and publicly humiliated Hitler. Her resistance in the face of terror and bureaucracy is etched across her face and wavering voice throughout. Wilton particularly shines in a scene where she explains maternal instinct to the officer she constantly barrages with requests for information about her son (a tightly wound John Light). However, great as Wilton is, the real star is Hutson as Hans. The audience travels with him on his epic and doomed journey as he becomes mentally and physically weaker, a complicated character humanised by Hutson’s nuanced performance. They are ably supported by Mark Grady and Pip Donaghy in lighter but vital rôles.
Robert Jones’ set is sparse but understandably so considering much of the action takes place in a prison cell. The lighting by Tim Mitchell adds much to the piece, whether it is echoing the warm glow of friendship or the terror of a concentration camp, it always adds an extra dimension to any scene. Hayhurst twice uses actual transcript from the trial, in the first half the excerpt is funny and satirical, but the production turns this on its head in the second half, using the same words in more terrifying and twisted way.
What lets this production down slightly is the aforementioned messy first act, the switches between scenes of Hans imprisoned as his mother’s search for him are sudden and sometimes unclear, but it is a minor flaw in Jonathan Church’s cracking production that maintains the high standard of drama that Chichester has become renowned for. A powerful and compelling piece.
Runs until Saturday 1November | Photo Manuel Harlan