C P Taylor
Fictionhouse & Playful Productions
Harold Pinter Theatre
Twice delayed by the pandemic, this production of C P Taylor’s 1981 play has been worth waiting for. It is a picture of an intelligent, liberal-minded German finding himself increasingly becoming complicit in the Nazi takeover of German life.
Director Dominic Cooke uses only three actors to play multiple roles in a play that can instantly jump cut from one scene to another or into the mind of protagonist John Halder.
David Tennant is Professor Halder, a Frankfurt academic, an expert on Goethe who is apparently devoted to family: he does the cooking while his wife practices on the piano. Elliot Levey plays his best friend Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist, but with no costume change can instantly switch to being high-up Nazis, the man losing control of his life suddenly his opposite, the calm, controlling fascists. Sharon Small ranges from Halder’s now blind mother who is succumbing to dementia to his wife Helen, his student lover Ann and even a senior male SS officer.
In a production where scene and even character may change mid-sentence, they play with such clarity that it is never in doubt who they are and changes in lighting state sometimes emphasise the change.
Designer Vicki Mortimer sets the action in what looks like a concrete bunker, there are no door or windows though a panel will open to disgorge a mountain of banned books and another to reveal the fire they are to be burned in. Choose how you read that: is this the Germany Maurice can’t escape from or simply the confines of Halder’s head in which, ever since Hitler came to power in 1931, he has been hearing music no one else can?
Good begins with that music, which the audience can hear too. Popular or classical, Richard Tauber, Marlene Dietrich, popular classics or a jazz band as Halder explains to friend Maurice. Tom Gibbons’s sound design provides much more than that music, underscoring the whole play reaching a climax to suggest the horrors of Kristallnacht while plunged into darkness.
Halder downplays Hitler’s antisemitism: the “anti-Jewish hysteria” he calls a sop to the masses that will be dropped once their power is established. Halder only seen things as they affect himself, finding good reasons for going along with the Nazis. His problems with his mother inspired a book with euthanasia its key subject; now he is flattered when approached as an authority about it. He adopts a “Heil Hitler” greeting out of politeness. He joins the Party for the sake of his family.
Early on, Halder tells the story of Beethoven writing to Goethe begging financial help, a letter the poet didn’t answer. Later, we see Halder increasingly ignoring Maurice’s situation as the Nazi grip tightens. Asked to buy train tickets to get Maurice and his family out of the country, he refuses; impossible, he says, for him to do that in his SS uniform. From someone simply ignoring what is happening, he becomes an active participant. Critics are asked not to reveal how the play ends, but you can see where it is going.
Tennant plays Halder as very ordinary but a man who can’t imagine other lives. Why do those bands play in his head? It is ironic that he is asking his Jewish friend for explanations. Is it so easy to block out realities you don’t want to acknowledge? When he comes downstage and speaks his thoughts out, surely he will see reality; it is there, just under the surface, but he still blocks it. He still thinks he is a good guy.
The play puts us inside Halder’s head, sharing his self-justification as he orders his memories. Tennant delivers a fascinating central performance with equally intense playing from Elliot Levy and Sharon Small.
Good is a chilling reminder of how easily selfish humanity can accept, even justify, action inherently evil. Its starkness is relieved by a few laughs and its imaginative staging and excellent acting make it powerful theatre. Put it on your to-see list.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton