C P Taylor
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre marks the thirtieth anniversary of C P Taylor's last and most successful play Good, originally produced by the RSC in 1981 just three months before the playwright's death at the age of 52.
Set in Germany in the 1930s, the play takes place in the head of literature professor Halder, the plot having the logic and structure of a casual conversation or even a dream, making it difficult at times to work out what is real and what is fantasy. This could be a recipe for confusion, but Taylor has utilised this structural device to tell us about the state of Halder's mind and of the country and also gets a great deal of comedy out of it.
Halder keeps hallucinating that he hears music playing everywhere, and as we, the audience, are inside his head we see musicians wander on and hear music playing from a drawer, a handbag and a coffee pot. He talks to his friend Maurice, a Jewish doctor who says he hates Jews, about it, and about how Hitler will almost certainly drop his persecution of the Jews now that this policy has got him into power. However Halder is persuaded by his neurotic wife to join the National Socialist party so that he doesn't lose his job, then he is noticed by the leaders for a novel he wrote on euthanasia of the severely disabled and terminally or mentally ill based on the experiences of his mother who suffers from dementia, so before too long the new SS has a place for him.
Halder's story proceeds by the "boiling a frog" method: instead of an extreme idea being introduced all at once, it is brought about by a series of small steps, each of which can be justified as only a small change from the situation beforehand. In this way, a literature professor with Jewish friends can be persuaded to join the National Socialists and before long can justify burning books at the university, and from writing a novel that seems to advocate humane killing of the severely-ill and disabled at the request of their relatives, he is frighteningly few steps away from Auschwitz.
As the audience sees everything from inside Halder's head, the central role is a substantial one that requires a charismatic actor to keep the audience's attention, and the Royal Exchange certainly has one in Adrian Rawlins who holds together the confused chronology and mixed-up reality and fantasy magnificently. Opposite him, Kerry Shale is his frustrated friend Maurice who counters Halder's academic justifications of his action with foul-mouthed abuse. Madeleine Worrall pulls off a difficult part as his wife who is unable to do even basic housework, Janet Whiteside is his strong-willed mother who slips in and out of dementia, Beth Park is very good as his student Anne who falls in love with him, and Richard Goulding makes the major who talks Halder into some of his early actions for the Nazis very pleasant and likeable.
Polly Findlay's production for the Royal Exchange gets across the chaotic, dreamlike structure of the piece, bringing out both the humour and the darkness in the play. It is about asking whether good people can be persuaded to do very bad things. It turns to those of us who condemn what the Nazis did and asks whether we can truly say that our actions would have been radically different from the thousands of people who were as "good" as we believe ourselves to be or whether we would have had the courage to swim against the prevailing tide.
On the surface, this is a very dark comedy, but concealed beneath is something rather more complex that questions how we view ourselves and others as human beings. The unusual form could easily be a gimmick, but here is used brilliantly to put across the confusion in Germany and in the minds of the characters and to place us, the audience, in that very uncertain world where moral choices could conflict with our instincts for survival.
"Good" runs until 5 November
Reviewer: David Chadderton