There are moments in Mark Hayhurst’s remarkable play, Taken At Midnight, when the audience at last night’s opening in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre were left on the brink of tears.
One man was so angry at an outpouring of hatred from a Nazi officer that he felt compelled to offer his own ad-lib in reply.
This is a profoundly harrowing drama superbly acted by an ensemble cast led by quite splendid and moving performances from Penelope Wilton and Martin Hutson.
Hayhurst stumbled on the true story of lawyer Hans Litten and it’s a crime that his name is now all but forgotten.
Taken At Midnight is part of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Hidden Histories season and is, to date, arguably its most successful piece.
The sheer intensity and power of the story-telling comes predominantly in a monologue from Wilton as Litten’s indomitable campaigning mother, Irmgard.
In 1931 the young and ambitious lawyer, Hans Litten had the audacity to summon Adolf Hitler to the stand in a Berlin courtroom in a criminal trial involving four of his stormtroopers.
Hitler was subjected to a ferocious cross-examination which Litten later admitted was sheer arrogance on his part.
The leader of the burgeoning Nazi Party was humbled and embarrassed to be belittled by the 29-year-old.
But he got his revenge.
Two years later Litten was targeted along with 4,000 political prisoners and held “for their own protection” in a series of concentration camps. Many were never released.
Director Jonathan Church uses the small Minerva Theatre to good effect with one third a barren prison cell and the remaining floor-space utilised for everything from Nazi offices to a park and Irmgard’s home.
From the outset Penelope Wilton’s courageous and fearless mother refuses to accept her son’s demise and fights endless battles with the authorities for his release.
Her story is told directly in exposition to the audience, only broken for various interactions with other characters, while Hutson’s increasingly fragile and brutalised Hans plays out his predicament.
In one scene the broken lawyer dons a fake moustache to act out his courtroom confrontation for fellow prisoners. Hutson’s transformation into Hitler is jaw-dropping and sent shivers down my spine.
John Light appears as Dr Conrad, a Nazi officer, who offers Irmgard tea and sympathy but the human face of the Gestapo isn’t all it seems. It’s a chilling performance.
There is superb support from a cast of fine theatre veterans – Allan Corduner plays Fritz, Hans’ distant and uncomprehending father. Mike Grady and Pip Donaghy make an unlikely double act as fellow prisoners Carl von Ossietzky and Erich Mühsam.
It was also wonderful to see the return to the stage of the beautifully spoken David Yelland in a brief cameo as Lord Clifford Allen.
Allen flew to Germany to make an appeal to Hitler for Litten’s release though his heart hardly seemed in it.
He later declared that the issue was a domestic one and even hinted that pre-war Germany was in a better state under its new, democratically elected, Fuhrer.
It was, as always, a beautifully observed, though much too brief performance, by the immaculate Yelland.
David Yellend and Edward Fox (who appears at Chichester later in the season) have the finest voices on the British stage and it is a real luxury to listen to their perfect diction.
Jonathan Church’s astonishing production should be on everyone’s “must see” list of plays. Let us hope for a West End transfer.