“There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it,” remarks Irwin from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. Transferring from Chichester to the Haymarket on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Taken At Midnight is a capable refutation of the idea. This is a quiet and dignified commemoration of an ineffable event made more and more startling by the courage of the people who resisted it.
Producer Mark Goucher is responsible here for Mark Hayhurst’s debut play. Seeing his drama documentary The Man Who Crossed Hitler back in 2011, Goucher was struck by the tale of Hans Litten, a brassy young lawyer who in 1931 subpoenaed Adolf Hitler and, by most accounts, humiliated the future Fuhrer in court. Hitler may have conducted an eerie electricity behind the podium, but on the stand was verbally viscid, charismatically castrated; ill-equipped to deal with the nimble showboating of Litten. It would be an encounter that certain members of the Nazi party would never forget, drawing Hans into a spiral of progressively more infamous concentration camps – from Sonnenburg all the way to Dachau.
Hayhurst’s swivel from screen to stage pivots on Hans’ mother, Irmgard. Rendering the woman who stuck by her son’s side, from his legal firm (and therefore his poverty-stricken clients, Hitler’s political opponents) to the very end of his life, Penelope Wilton offers a composed yet torturously dogged performance. Whether bartering over which books she might send Litten (the distant pyrite glow of Medieval literature being thought particularly suitable by the Nazis) or challenging Lord Allen (obliviously optimistic as so many Britons were to Hitler’s irresistible rise), her gentle but forthright account affects simply and deeply. Yet it allows space, too, for moments of humour to be cast out to the audience: the bewilderment of the humane in the face of an absurd juggernaut. Her final encounter with her son raises a skein of tissues in the stalls; the timelessly potent scenario of a mother searching for a lost child. Neither stoic nor hysterical, Wilton’s gradual ingestion by the whirlpool of history becomes in itself a heroic act.
Director Jonathan Church plots her journey compellingly, alternating wry narration with the staggering drudgery of her daily appeals for Hans’ release. Her polite defiance is in part what makes her so engaging (of her ‘Heil Hitler’ she says, “It always sounded like a war-cry, and the person thus greeted always looked at me with a startled expression”). John Light, as the boyishly cordial officer dealing with her enquiries – fishing for compliments on his summer suit, cajoling Irmgard into ice cream in the park – captures the bizarre joviality of a regime unaware of the desperate direction in which it is heading.
Robert Jones’ design provides the stark sheen of a Gestapo office torn through with the rough trapezium of a concrete prison. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is notably masterful, an ethereal firmament of foreboding light, while Matthew Scott offers a gripping score of sharpening knives. Martin Hutson gives a wonderfully devil-may-care performance as Hans: crisply intelligent, drolly ironic, with flashes of both the broken boy who knows his time is up and the reckless lawyer whose pride refuses to bewail the fact. Pip Donaghy, as one of Litten’s anarchist cellmates, enriches proceedings with an almost incongruent comedy – “It’s a kick to the essential dignity” “It’s a kick to the essential testicles”. His own particular story is a chilling reminder that for a fool trapped in a machine lacking any sense of humour there is only one possible end.
As Hayhurst says in the programme, “Terror, it seems, makes people ingenious as well as frightened and, thankfully, it is not an easy task for a dictatorship to subdue people inspired by love”. This story, as the millions around it, can never amount to a happy ending. But it is an unyielding reminder that the perseverance of those such as Irmgard Litten are a cause for some hope in humanity, however mired we are by our own unfathomable acts.