Last night we went to see something rare in the West End - a new play by a new author in one of the most prestigious of London theatres. Nope, not the Donmar or Almeida or some poky over-a-pub fringe venue but in the Haymarket, the sometime home of all-star revivals.
If I am honest I think that although this transfer from Chichester is to be applauded for introducing a new voice with a thoughtful and engrossing new play, I think it was an uneasy fit in the plush surroundings of the Haymarket, a more intimate auditorium would have served the play better and made it more powerful.
Mark Hayhurst is certainly no stranger to the tragic tale of Hans Litten as he has already written a tv drama and documentary about him so he is the right person to bring it to the stage but this time he shifts the focus to Litten's mother Irmgard.
Hans Litten was a young barrister in Berlin who specialised in defending the left-wing working-class in court. In 1931 he prosecuted three members of the SA for killing three and wounding twenty others in an attack by the paramilitaries on a left-wing dance hall. His bold coup-de-grace was to call Adolf Hitler to the stand where he was cross-examined on his claims that the Nazi Party did not propagate violence and were a credible political party.
Litten set out to show that Hitler was in fact the leader of a party that terrorised it's opponents. Hitler's obvious discomfort at being cross-examined was not forgotten. In 1932 the Nazi party rose to power and the following year, on the night of the Reichstag fire, Hitler exacted his revenge - Litten was arrested at midnight and spent almost five years being shuttled around various prisons and concentration camps, subjected to beatings and torture. This was done while he was being held without trial in "protective custody" - another fine example of the Nazi's corruption of language. Eventually moved to Dachau, Litten hanged himself on 5th February 1938.
All the time he was in prison, his mother Irmgard relentlessly pursued the Nazis for his release, haunting their offices with increasing desperation, happy for any information of his whereabouts from released prisoners as proof he was still alive.
There was one moment of real hope when Litten's case was picked up by British politician Lord Clifford Allen but although Allen had a meeting with Hitler, nothing came of it as Allen believed in appeasement with the Nazi party.
After their son's death, Irmgard moved to England while his father relocated to Northern Ireland. She lived to see her son's tormentors defeated and died in 1953 but her husband had predeceased her in 1940.
The play has them at odds over how to react to their son's fate and indeed, Hans had grown distant from his father, a Jew who converted to Lutheranism to further his legal career. Baptised a Christian, Hans embraced Judaism to get back at his father although this rebounded on him when he arrived at Dachau as he was classified Jewish and made to wear the yellow star. Which is also ironic in that the tragedy that overtook Hans Litten, his colleagues and other disaparate groups in the 1930s risks being lost in the wake of the overwhelming later Holocaust.
Some artistic licence has been taken in casting the tall and graceful Martin Hutson as Hans Litten as, in real life, he was more of a Billy Bunter lookalike, but he gave a heartfelt and affecting performance, nuanced enough to suggest that Litten realised that he had been the unwitting agent of his own fate.
The supporting roles have been cast well with solid, experienced actors: Pip Donaghy is very good as Erich Muhsam, the anarchist poet/playwright who shares Hans' cell and who remained unbowed in the face of his own death while Mike Grady plays Carl von Ossietzky, a left-wing journalist who also shares their cell. Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 but remained in prison until he died in the following year from TB.
David Yelland was good as the affable Lord Allen, full of waffle about freedom but doing nothing to anger Hitler while John Light was suitably chilling as Dr Conrad, the Nazi who is Irmgard's one unpredictable link to her son's release. She has to demur to him in the hope that in doing so Hans will gain freedom but all the time you get the feeling of a sometimes-interested cat playing with a mouse.
There is a final confrontation scene between them when the avuncular mask drops and the real brutal face and mind of Nazism is revealed and it is to the credit of the lean, sinewy writing and committed playing of the actors that in this and similar scenes you could hear a pin drop - apart from the obligatory coughing.
Penelope Wilton was excellent as Irmgard, her unflinching quest for justice reflected in her tense, ramrod posture and her fists clenched. Lesser actresses would play the sentiment but Wilton remained believably stoic, aware that any sign of weakness would be seized on by her son's captors. She finally relents in her last meeting with Hans when she begs him to realise that "the time for bravery is over". Early on in the play it occurred to me that she almost seemed to be channeling her CHALK GARDEN co-star, the late Margaret Tyzack; both in her lower register and speech. Once I thought that I couldn't shift it from my mind. I hope she takes it as a compliment that I thought that.
Jonathan Church's direction has a relentless forward motion to it, moving inexorably towards the inevitable conclusion although after a while I wanted something more than the actors walking on, saying their lines and walking off. Robert Jones has designed a simple but very effective set which helps the action move seamlessly from scene to scene and is helped enormously by Tim Mitchell's marvellous lighting suggesting the looming shadows of German expressionism. In one memorable moment, Litten strides off after a reanactment of the 1931 trial with his shadow growing ever larger across the back wall only for it to suddenly change to the shadow of him hanged.
As I said, Mark Hayhurst's taut writing kept us subdued and attentive and with mothers across the world plaintively asking madmen for the return of their sons and daughters, the story of Irmgard and Hans Litten will tragically always be relevant but ultimately the play felt at times like a radio play transposed to the stage.