Tosca's Kiss

Kenneth Jupp
Orange Tree, Richmond
(2006)

Charles Kay as Hjalmar Schacht

Set in Nuremberg in 1946 at the time of the world’s first ever War Crimes Trials, Kenneth Jupp’s play takes a close look at the cross examination and eventual acquittal of the German international banker, Hjalmar Schacht, as seen through the eyes of Rebecca West.

A celebrated English writer then aged 54, West had been engaged by the Daily Telegraph to provide lengthy ‘think pieces’, sustained journalistic responses to the thugs and pathetic functionaries who had contributed to the horrors of the Nazi era, but who were now trapped and brought to justice by the victorious Allies.

These essays were to prove of such penetrating insight and historic value that they were later collected in book form to give West a rewarding second career as a speaker on the American lecture circuit.

Jupp encloses his play within one such blandly philosophising address, delivered by Julia Watson as West to suggest a gently smiling, somewhat knowing air. But far more troubling for the good of his central theme, he also brings a 1940s Warner Bros focus to bear on an awkward romantic relationship that springs up between the married but loveless West and the former American attorney general, Judge Francis Biddle, suavely played by David Yelland, here set against a swing and Big Band soundtrack.

This is despatched with stylish efficiency in Auriol Smith’s brisk, world premiere production. But not without the unexpected intrusion of a brief bed scene involving a scene change, plus dozens of vodka cocktails and the sort of dialogue that calls for the tear-jerking talents of a Bette Davis and Paul Henreid.

Watson and Yelland acquit themselves without serious embarrassment and some wit as the non-smoking West craves a post-coital cigarette. But these intimate scenes, prompted by the radio announcement of the death of West’s sometime lover H G Wells and an evening visit to a local revival of Puccini’s Tosca, are a misjudged addition to a play of engrossing political value.

It was first given a rehearsed reading last year at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when Harold Pinter as a cast member no doubt saw its indictment of international finance and profiteering as a political corrupting force to be another contributing strand to what would eventually become his Nobel acceptance speech.

The only problem with this is that for dramatic reasons Jupp, its seems, has wilfully ignored the facts of Schacht’s turbulent life and career, which are set out in small print in the Orange Tree programme notes but more fully and persuasively on the Wikipedia website.

Long before Hitler came to power and as the Reichsbank president he was already a creative force in the German post-war economic revival, stabilising the Reichsmark as a world currency. He roundly despised the excessive terms of Mein Kampf and in 1935 made a public speech against Julius Streicher and the unlawful treatment of the Jews.

He never became a member of the Nazi party, although Hitler conferred an Honorary Membership—just two years before summarily dismissing him from his post at the Reichsbank in 1939. Schacht maintained close if covert connexions with the Nazi opposition and was committed as a prisoner to the Dachau concentration camp following the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, where he remained until it was liberated by American forces in April 1945. After his acquittal at Nuremberg he was re-arrested by a German denazification tribunal and sentenced to eight years imprisonment.

Astonishingly not a single one of these well-established facts make an appearance in the play. Instead Schacht is subjected to an ill-researched harangue by a fictional interrogator, powerfully portrayed by Steven Elder as an American officer who had played a part in the liberation of Dachau, an experience which has left him with indelible psychic scars, and who seemingly bases his case on a dubious biography of Schacht which, one supposes, Jupp also used to create this play.

Luckily the role of Schacht is played with cool but devastating power and irony by Charles Kay. And while never getting the opportunity to use the evidence outlined above, he makes a wholly convincing case for the virtual inevitability of the international money markets, both in the creation of despotic governments and their eventual downfall, seen against a mid-20th century world riven by US capitalism on the one side and Soviet communism on the other, with Germany as the only geographical and political buffer.

The play may be seriously flawed, not least with a closing moment of bathos as Elder strips to his skin as a surrogate Jewish victim of the gas chambers. But Kay’s delivery from the dock, prompting sympathetic laughter from the audience (and no doubt from its original auditors at Nuremberg) has already made for another absolutely compelling moment of theatre in this in-the-round Orange Tree arena.

Reviewer: John Thaxter