Hitler On The Stand In Taken At Midnight
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
If you were to make a list of historical characters that you’d like to see shamed and humiliated in court, there’s a strong chance Adolf Hitler would be right at the top. So it may come as some surprise to hear that he really did undergo a merciless legal drubbing. In 1931, shortly before the Nazis came to power, a 29-year-old Jewish lawyer named Hans Litten called Hitler to the witness stand in the trial of four of his storm troopers. Then, in front of a packed public gallery, the young lawyer tore ‘the Fuhrer’ and his ideology to shreds.
In crafting a play about Litten, the temptation for writer Mark Hayhurst might have been to revel in the glory of his most famous day in court, but instead we are given something far more harrowing. The play begins with Litten's arrest two years later (revenge for the courtroom humiliation that Hitler never forgot), then follows him through a succession of concentration camps, and culminates with his suicide at Dachau in 1938. Not only that, but the narrative is split between the lawyer’s own experiences and those of his mother, Irmgard Litten, who campaigned tirelessly through the years for her son’s release.
It is a chilling and absorbing piece of drama that recalls just how vicious the Nazis were from the minute they took power; they might not have graduated to full-blown genocide for a few years, but they dealt in terror and brutality from the get-go.
And what makes it all the more affecting is the benefit of horrible hindsight. We know exactly where the country (and the continent) was headed, so can see the tragic futility in the hopes of characters who think there might be a humane outcome to their plight. It’s painful watching as they try to make sense of their barbarous new rulers, attempting to predict where the fanaticism might end and the humanity begin. Irmgard even writes a letter to Hitler, asking for clemency for her son — her son, the Jew lawyer that humiliated him in court! It seems so preposterous now, but love will cling to whatever strand of hope it can find.
Robert Jones’ stark concrete set and Matthew Scott’s haunting score are both highly effective. But the production’s great strength is in the performances. In particular, Penelope Wilton is masterful as Irmgard, remaining stoic and dignified while conveying a storm of inner emotions. And while Hayhurst’s script is sometimes a little too elegant for its own good — you often find yourself yearning for the power of rawer language — it is well constructed and deeply thought-provoking. Though it takes a little while to get going, this is a powerful and at times heart-wrenching story of a remarkable woman and her quest to free her courageous son.
By Dan Frost
Taken At Midnight runs at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 14 March. Tickets £15 - £75. Londondonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 28 January 2015