‘I knew right then I was going to be tested in some way and I knew I was going to fail.’
Usually I am resistant to phrases like: ‘following critical acclaim’ and ‘a sold-out season’. Such were the words following Jonathan Church’s world premiere production of ‘Taken at Midnight’ by Mark Hayhurst* after a sell-out season at Chichester Theatre. Reviews and some local positive feedback encouraged me to book.
Very simply, the source of the play was promising, referring to the little-known arrest and imprisonment of Hans Litten, a Jewish lawyer who had the audacity to summon Adolf Hitler as a witness at the trial of four militant Brownshirts (of the Sturm Abteilung or Storm Department) who stood accused of murder in the early days of Nazi Germany. The SA was a nasty brutish organisation, which Hitler later abandoned, murdering many of their principal commanders, though when he came to power in 1933 he still needed them. Litten humiliate the Hitler, only to be later persecuted and seized in a midnight raid after the Nazis sweep to power in 1933. The drama centres on Litten’s formidable mother’s campaign to get him released after he is taken into ‘protective custody’- all in the face of incredible personal risk. Spoiler alert: After five years of beatings and torture Litten hangs himself in Dachau in 1938.
Crowd pleaser, Penelope Wilton’s (Irmgard Litten) direct address to those in the Circle lacks any credible emotional engagement with her lines which are delivered with treadmill monotony. I wanted to believe in her role as the silent majority in the face of implacable bureaucracy. I wanted to empathise with a mother’s love against the nerve-scraping music by Matthew Scott. No jackbooted menace comes from John Light’s Gestapo officer Dr Conrad. Even the humanising of his character lacks the moral challenge of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Commandant at Belsen’ that grants even an ogre/ a tiny glow-worm/ tenderness encapsulated/ in icy caverns of a cruel/ heart.’ The continuous cut-and-thrust between Irmgard and Dr. Conrad is a failed opportunity to add a chilling edge to highlight the contrast between words and actions. Only knowledge of the events at this time fills the missing gaps. The original rich individual narrative is lost. All characters slip into caricatures, though Martin Hutson, as Litten, does well to depict a crippled man who remains mindfully resolute to his beliefs. Physically, Litten deteriorates before us; degraded from a presentable professional man to a concentration camp inmate, wearing both the yellow star of the Jews, (his father was Jewish) and the red triangle of the political prisoners in striped camp uniform.
We don’t see the Hitler trial, except in recollection with Roger Allam as the off-stage voice of Hitler.
It’s just not enough to have some beautiful lines, and there are gems: ‘The books have gone but the words haven’t. I still have those: they’re mine.’ ‘You mistake purpose for a lack of pity.’ Good scenes lose momentum because the dialogue continues after they’ve peaked.
The star of the night is Robert Jones’s cleverly designed, harsh, angled setting with clever projected silhouettes from Tim Mitchell, though, theatrically, the prison scenes are lost in the background.