When I heard Taken At Midnight was transferring from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, I got rather excited. Penelope Wilton is one of my favourite actresses and the prospect of seeing her on stage was irresistible.
Set in 1930s Germany, as Adolf Hitler consolidates his grip on power, the play follows Irmgard Litten (Wilton), a respectable middle-class mother, as she fights for the release of her lawyer son Hans (Martin Hutson) who is a political prisoner in a concentration camp, under the state’s ‘protective custody’ – meaning he can be kept imprisoned indefinitely with no trial.
Hans has been incarcerated because he put Hitler in the witness box in 1931, holding him to account for the violent behaviour of his thuggish followers. In the cross-examination that followed, Litten’s incisive questioning and quick-wittedness utterly humiliated Hitler. A humiliation that was never forgotten and for which the Litten family pay a terrible price.
Penelope Wilton gave a tremendous performance as Irmgard Litten, dignified, determined, acerbic, and devoted. Wilton’s Irmgard is never sentimental or hysterical, but we are in no doubt of the depths of her emotions. “I will shout to the world. I have a loud voice. Louder than you know,” she proclaims and there is no doubt she will. She will fight for her son at any cost, going so far as to offer herself in his place.
The scenes between Irmgard and Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer she pursues for information about Hans’s whereabouts and well-being, are compelling as a strange almost-friendship develops. As Conrad, John Light is no caricatured Nazi monster, which makes his final scene with Irmgard all the more chilling when he reveals the extent of his contempt for her son and all he stands for.
For a play with such heartbreaking emotional depths and dark brutal scenes, it is also surprisingly funny, especially the first half’s sparring between Hans’s fellow prisoners, the anarchist, Mühsam, and the intellectual writer, von Ossietzky (played with clown-like mischief and weary sarcasm by Pip Donaghy and Mike Grady respectively).
Jonathan Church, the director, darkens the tone in the second half, and Robert Jones’s superb set is integral to this. Harsh concrete walls with barred skylights and sinister shadows are the background for Hans’s deteriorating physical state as continual beatings and torture take their toll. Martin Hutson gave an impressive performance as Hans in all his contradictions, his self-belief and his doubts until his final tragic end.
Writer Mark Hayhurst’s powerful play, based on real-life people and events, is affecting on many levels, from the way it portrays the single-mindedness of a mother’s fight for her child, to the way it illustrates the brutality of the Nazi state and how the fate of political prisoners in the 1930s foreshadowed what was to come for the future victims of the Holocaust.
There are also contemporary parallels to draw, in the way totalitarian states and extremist groups are intolerant of and violent towards those writers, cartoonists or activists who make fun of them or challenge them. And in the way democracy, freedom of expression and the right to fair trial are taken so much for granted. ‘Taken At Midnight’ may be set in the past but the scenes on the news at the moment make it disturbingly relevant to our own times…