Review: Disturbing and moving play reflects modern tensions

Deb Relton-Elves as Irmgard Litten and Jon Elves as Dr Conrad
Deb Relton-Elves as Irmgard Litten and Jon Elves as Dr Conrad

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Taken at Midnight at the Criterion Theatre in Coventry

There seems to be a renewed interest in Nazi Germany at the moment, particularly on TV, no doubt linked to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and America. But Mark Hayhurst’s play set in 1930s Germany is less about tyranny than the cost of resistance.

Two true stories play out side by side in this harrowing production. One is the story of Hans Litten (Gareth Withers), a Jewish lawyer who had the audacity to subpoena Adolf Hitler in a trial of four of his foot soldiers accused of murder in 1931. Litten was a clever, slightly vain lawyer, who enjoyed the spectacle of the courtroom and made a fool of Hitler in the witness box. Hitler never forgot the insult, and in 1933 Litten was arrested and incarcerated in a series of concentration camps “for his own protection”. There he suffered the fate of many, many more that were worked to death or simply annihilated, out of sight and out of mind.

The other story is that of his mother, Irmgard Litten (Deb Relton-Elves), a wealthy aristocratic woman who never gave up in the fight for his release, often without the support of her own family. Hers is a story of a mother’s love that knows no bounds, desperately seeking for a way around the Party’s obstinacy. Her resistance is expressed through her relationship with Dr Conrad (Jon Elves), a senior Gestapo officer who holds the keys to her son’s release and with whom over time she forms an almost intimate relationship as they play cat and mouse in his office. But he is forever the cat: beneath their civilised discourse there is more than a touch of sadism in the way he plays her for the Party’s good.

Irmgard is really the centre of this play, and her lonely fight is deeply moving to behold. Deb Relton-Elves delivers a fine performance, passionate, upright and intelligent. She is ably supported by Gareth Withers as Hans, who reminded me not a little of Kenneth Branagh in his delivery. Two other opponents of tyranny share Hans’ cell and his punishments: the anarchist Erich Muhsam (Dave Crossfield) who bitingly mocks the absurdity of the Nazi ego, and Carl von Ossietzky (George Rippon), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 for his exposure of the secret German rearmaments programme. On stage they form a tragic, heroic triumvirate. Matt Sweatman is marvellously pompous as Hans’ father Fritz, a former university chancellor who is sacked for his Jewish background and who yet continues to urge compromise. Perhaps most disturbing is Steve Brown as Lord Clifford Allen, the tall angular British diplomat and former pacifist who, in those years of appeasement, tries not to rock the Nazi boat too hard and thus conspires in Hans’ death.

Mark Hayhurst has made a career out of writing about Hans Litton. This is a deeply disturbing play that raises difficult questions and touches many nerve endings today.

* Taken at Midnight runs until Saturday March 25. Visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk to book.