Chichester, Minerva Studio Theatre
It was the true story of Hans Litten, the brilliant young German lawyer who subpoenaed Hitler in 1931, cross-examined him in a trial of four Nazi stormtroopers and humiliated him.
Litten’s `audacity’ was never forgotten and on the night of the Reichstag fire he was arrested with thousands of others. Mark Hayhurst, the author of The Man Who Crossed Hitler (BBC 2011) subsequently wrote a documentary. Taken at Midnight is yet a third work covering the same episode but this time seen from an entirely different perspective, that of Litten’s mother, Irmgard.
Taken at Midnight, you could say, falls into two halves. The first, absurdist, follows Litten in prison in Sonnenburg, with fellow intellectuals, Carl von Ossietsky (journalist) and anarchist Erich Mühsam.
The dialogue is sharp, euphemistic and philosophical – on the nature of cruelty, Nazi style, on paradoxes, and on Litten’s great `crime’ of putting Hitler `on trial’.
Jonathan Church’s production switches between this bare prison cell and Irmgard’s attempts to free her son through encounters with Gestapo officer, Dr Conrad.
You’d think by now Nazi banners and uniforms had become a dreadful theatre cliché. Yet Church’s production avoids the pitfall through irony and under-statement except in circumstances where shock and impact are absolutely necessary.
And they do shock. Physically and emotionally. Nothing prepares you for the second act and its final moments of mother and son’s encounter in Dachau.
So much has already flowed through the play from conversations between Irmgard, Conrad, Fritz, Irmgard’s husband, Hans and his fellow prisoners, of political and emotional bravery and courage – Hans converted to Judaism following his Jewish father, himself a Christian convert – and of resonances, chiming still today with fascism’s distorted appeals. But Hayhurst never indulges. Dialogue is kept short, to the point and in the hands of this cast, Penelope Wilton as Irmgard, Allan Corduner’s Fritz, John Light’s Conrad and Martin Hutson’s Hans, finally wrenches the guts.
All culminates in the mother/son exchange – a moment of intense personal intimacy and of desperate universal application.
Browsing through the web, there are no doubt many other stories Hayhurst could have told; many other forgotten histories related to this event. It is not altogether clear, for example, that von Ossietsky was a Nobel Peace prize winning pacifist. Then again, searching for Irmgard, her Wikipedia stretches to a mere two-liner: writer and Hans Litten’s mother!
Taken at Midnight at least restores, fleshes out, her fierce, wonderful liberal spirit that she clearly passed on to her son. Amongst many other things, Hayhurst’s script and Church’s exemplary production gives us a homage to Hans and those who died with him. But it is also one to enduring, maternal love.
I hope it gets a wide and enduring further life. Unforgettable.
First published in Londongrip Oct 2014