This play has its genesis in a documentary and televised drama written by Mark Hayhurst. It’s the fascinating, inspiring and tragic story of Irmgard Littten’s efforts to remove from jail her lawyer son who humiliated Hitler in the witness box in 1931 at the trial of four of his storm troopers. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he had Litten incarcerated at Sonneburg and later Dachau. Hayhurst features a rather forgotten aspect of Nazi tyranny namely the imprisonment of political prisoners prior to the holocaust. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Litten story, every bit as scandalous and corrupt as that of Dreyfuss, is how little known Litten was or is, so Hayhurst has performed a magnificent service in highlighting it.
I have neither seen the tv drama nor documentary but a play can create more impact as the audience shares the same space and there is no filter of screen. It does seem almost insensitive to say but I do not believe I was alone in the Minerva theatre to feel that the play dragged its weight in the long second half. Playwrights and directors forget that for reasons of fatigue, restlessness and comfort breaks audiences do not like a long period post interval. The second half was longer than the first. Occasionally I closed my eyes, not to nod off, but to concentrate on the dialogue that was too clunky and declamatory. The final scene when the mother was united with her son lost its impact. Penelope Wilton as Irmgard was most convincing when addressing the Gestapo police officer and scheming her son’s release. Martin Hutson’s Hans had the air of a man unbroken by torture or the depravity of prison. The father, played by Allan Corduner, who does not want to rock the boat gives you some idea of how the country of Durer, Bach, Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller descended into amoral barbarity.
The main theatre was playng Gypsy to packed houses but those of us in the Minerva experienced something less upbeat but a deeply moving experience, not least for the starkness of the set. Chichester’s creative artistic director Jonathan Church has only worked in provincial theatre but consistently comes up trumps with a mix of the popular and cutting edge that the West End might envy.