Wednesday, 11 February 2015

'Taken At Midnight' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

'Taken At Midnight' is a new play by Mark Hayhurst and has transferred from Chichester straight into one of the posher venues of the West End. It's nice to have a new play to see - we could do with more really - and even nicer to have the lead role designed exclusively for a more mature woman. How many of them do you get for the pound these days? In this case, the mature woman is Penelope Wilton who created the role in Chichester last summer.  Last years' season at Chichester was excellent  and it's nice to see this transfer to the West End, along with 'Gypsy' with that immense performance from Imelda Staunton which opens shortly at the Savoy. I'm seeing that in April.

I've seen Penelope in a few plays over recent years - 'Hamlet', 'Bernarda Alba' and 'John Gabriel Borkman', none of them laugh a minute musical extravaganzas. Penelope seems to have a different persona entirely on telly and in film - the loving wife and mother, slightly dizzy and wanting to please. She showed both sides in the 'Marigold Hotel' film a couple of years ago and I always remember her performance turning into a zombie in 'Shawn of the Dead', so similar to but a million miles from her role in 'Ever Decreasing Circles' decades ago. Suffice it to say I like seeing Penelope Wilton on stage - you never know what you're going to get but she will be good. She should be our next theatrical dame.

'Taken at Midnight' is the tale of German lawyer Hans Litten in the 1930s who prosecuted the Nazi SA thugs who terrorised left wingers in the early '30s. At one memorable trial he summoned Adolf Hitler to the witness stand and tore into him. He won the case, obviously, but Hitler had a long memory (and, I assume, a big notebook for all the names). The night the Reichstag burned down he was conveniently put into protective custody for his own sake and not detained in a prison but in a concentration camp. No-one in the play bats an eyelid at the term 'concentration camp' because it had a different meaning after the Nazi's use of the term. We follow him from camp to camp until he ends up in Dachau where he's classified as a Jew and where he manages to hang himself to escape his constant tormentors.

But it's not really about Hans, it's about his mother - and, by extension, the mothers of all the 'disappeared' over the years. Hans' disappearance forces her to deal directly with the gestapo and she makes no secret of the fact that she will annoy them and continue to annoy them until she speaks to someone who has real information about her son. And she does. As the years pass by her relationship with the gestapo officer develops - but she never trusts him - and it's quite a shock the first time she greets him after a few years with the Nazi salute and a shouted 'heil Hitler'. That made me do a double-take.

 She eventually gets to see her son at Dachau where she pleads with him to give the Nazi's what they want since 'the time to be brave is over'. She wants her son to live and, seeing him enter hobbling and with misshapen legs, she knows he can't have long to live without some kind of major intervention. She shouts at the threatening guards who don't want her near their prisoner but she moves her chair near so she can grasp his hands and plead. But to no avail. He's been through too much now to allow himself to weaken and he reminds his mother how she brought up him and his brothers, to tell the truth and be true to themselves.

The set is very simple with the front of the stage simply a wooden floor that, with the addition of a desk and some chairs, can be a living room or a gestapo office. The back of the stage is the prison area, bare with a chair or a bed depicting an interrogation room or a cell. The lighting did it all really, with shadows projecting all over, subdued one minute and then bright for a summers day. It was very impressive. And that's how the play ended, with Hans recollecting the trial with Hitler only to stride off as his shadow loomed only to turn into a shadow of a man being hanged.

It was a very impressive play, particularly Penelope Wilton as Irmgard, Hans' mother, who played to full-on and not willing to take any crap from the gestapo officers she dealt with. Don't mess with me, her attitude shouts, not a soft and complaint woman, but a woman of power and character with some standing in the society that slowly vanishes. Martin Hutson was great a Hans and, when he entered the final scene to meet his mother I couldn't believe the silhouette of his broken body was him. All the performances were excellent.

This play is well worth seeing, for the performances as well as for  story we shouldn't allow to be forgotten. Penelope and Martin were both great and touching and the spare set is something to behold in the different lighting shots. Go and see it if you've got the time.

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