Taken at Midnight
Chichester Festival Theatre
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
As the third and last of their ‘Hidden Histories’ this season, Chichester has chosen to relate the story of Hans Litten, the brilliant lawyer who in 1931, with bravery or foolhardiness, chose to put Adolf Hitler on the witness stand and subjected him to a two-hour examination to account for the violence of his Storm Troopers.
I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get a little of the trial itself. The brilliance of the lawyer and the discomfiture of Hitler would have been fascinating, but this story begins on the night of the Reichstag fire in 1933 when 4,000 men and women were arrested and Hans was taken from his bed in the night and placed in ‘Protective Custody’—in Spandau Prison.
It is here that we first see Hans and the results of the treatment ‘Protective Custody’ had handed out to him. Happily we don’t see too much of the torture to which he was subjected. Imagination is quite enough to deal with in this case.
The story from there concentrates on his brave and intelligent mother and her desperate attempts to get him out, first from the prison and later from the various concentration camps to which he was sent. Finally, in Dachau, he managed to commit suicide after five years of interrogation and torture.
His mother, Irmgard, was not without influence and had access to many important political figures of the time but there was nothing they could do for her. It was her sheer tenacity and fortitude which eventually won the respect of the Gestapo, in this play a Dr Conrad.
It seems he is trying to help her and an easy comradeship appears to develop between them. He even buys her an ice cream when walking in the park and out of uniform. As played by John Light, he is engaging, friendly and seemingly kind, but underneath he is a true Nazi with hatred in his heart and no help to her cause at all, refusing to believe her account of her son’s horrific injuries.
It is interesting, and probably very true to life, that the humour in this play comes from the prisoners. In spite of their appalling conditions and the cruelty and torture which becomes part of their daily lives, they find ways to laugh and joke and rise above the situation.
Perhaps the most vocal here is Pip Donaghy’s anarchist Erich Muhsam. Essayist, poet and playwright. He was also a cabaret performer and, used to making his voice heard, he did not endear himself to the guards by his loud protestations. He was murdered in a concentration camp in 1934.
Litten’s other companion here is Mike Grady’s journalist and socialist Carl von Ossietzky, ironically nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 but died in a prison hospital in 1938. He is more pragmatic about their situation but has a nice line in sardonic humour.
Even Litten (brilliantly portrayed by Martin Hudson) has his moment of humour and defiance despite his appalling injuries. In a parody of the trial, he takes the part of Hitler to the amusement of his fellow prisoners.
The heart of the play, however, belongs firmly to Penelope Wilton as Irmgard Litten. As a mother, I felt her anguish, her feeling of helplessness, yet her determination to fight on regardless of how dangerous her situation. Her biblical quote “Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear” rings very true.
Fascinating, gripping, emotionally draining and, directed by Jonathan Church, a triumph of both play and performance.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor