C P Taylor
Fictionhouse & Playful Productions / National Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre

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David Tennant Credit: Johan Persson

Filmed in front of a live audience at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Dominic Cooke’s timely revival of this parable by Scottish playwright C P Taylor of a Good man rising with the Third Reich draws on many uncomfortable themes that are hitting the headlines today with worrying regularity.

Designer Vicki Mortimer has created a claustrophobic letterbox in which the drama is set in a room akin to a prison cell, while the events play out to the accompaniment of a symbolic soundtrack, largely comprising jazz.

Given the current fashion for paring casts to the bone, it should come as no great surprise to discover a cast of three (until the final moments) for this chamber staging, where the Donmar Warehouse production 25 years ago featured 10. Since David Tennant solely plays the central role of John Halder, that leaves Sharon Small and Elliot Levey rushing around portraying numerous characters during a frantic 1¾-hour running time, aided by the swiftest of transitions between short scenes.

The opening in 1933 is quite relaxed, as university professor and novelist Halder chats with his only friend, a Jewish psychiatrist named Maurice. Soon, though, Hitler’s “anti-Jew programme” begins to impinge on their lives and friendship.

While Maurice worries about his future in a hostile state, John struggles to balance a complicated home life with a neurotic wife, three children and a depressed, blind mother on one side of the equation. The other features an arousing but shallow student, Anne, who becomes his future as they disappear into his past.

John’s career is in parallel transformation, after his writings, which tangentially appear to justify mercy killing of the diseased and unfit, prove popular with the Nazi hierarchy. Eventually, interviews with Goebbels and Eichmann, each seeking Aryan, anti-Semitic purity, lead to new opportunities as an officer in the SS, while poor Maurice is gradually lined up for a concentration camp.

The strength of the play lies not only in its ability to recreate the horrors of Nazism, with book burning a prelude to genocide, but also its depiction of an ordinary man getting sucked up into depravity despite his best intentions. This requires a degree of self-deception, especially when it comes to ignoring the parallels between his own family and the wider victimisation perpetrated by the Nazis.

The play might be set in a terrible period for humanity, but with its evocation of rampant populism, anti-Semitism, assisted euthanasia and the central character’s belief that tyrannical leaders cannot last, contemporary viewers might come away from their night out at the theatre both stunned and alarmed.

The small scale of the production, with its minimalist set and diminished cast, is skilfully effected, but some viewers might yearn for the days when producers could afford something a little more lavish.

While the performance is largely concentrated around David Tennant’s sensitive performance as an Everyman who finally, chillingly dons an SS uniform and heads off to supervise mass slaughter at Auschwitz, the energetic support of Sharon Small and Elliot Levey are required to bring off a deeply moving and very worrying evening.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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