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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Haymarket Theatre Royal


  (L to R) Pip Donaghy, Martin Hutson and Mike Grady/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It seems astonishing that Hans Litten’s name has been largely forgotten for so long. We should all, surely, have learned of him in our history lessons, for this was a man who – as a German-Jewish lawyer, aged just 29 in 1931 – called Adolf Hitler to account in a Berlin courtroom. Litten cross-examined and breathtakingly trounced the subpoenaed Führer of the fast-rising Nazi party in a trial that sought to condemn the murderous brutality of his Brownshirts.
The proceedings were watched by the German public, from packed galleries. And Mark Hayhurst's biodrama, Taken at Midnight, is now pulling a crowd, having transferred from the Chichester Festival to London's West End. Litten is played with quiet intensity by the excellent Martin Hutson, looking like a delicate flower but with a vein of steel: a stubbornly principled intellectual.
Hayhurst has, hitherto, written for television. Taken at Midnight is his debut play, commissioned off the back of both a 2011 BBC drama about Litten, broadcast by PBS under the title Hitler on Trial, and a documentary on the same subject called To Stop a Tyrant.
This time, the writer has shifted his focus to the aftermath, with Litten being taken into custody and tortured in a series of concentration camps. Also looming large now is the lawyer’s mother, Irmgard, risking her own life to battle for her son’s. Penelope Wilton portrays her as a stately member of the intelligentsia. Almost matronly in appearance but with formidable mettle, she doggedly tries to persuade a Gestapo official (John Light) to sympathize. She also pushes a British emissary, Lord Allen (plummy David Yelland), to jettison diplomatic palliatives and challenge Hitler, face to face, about Litten’s incarceration without trial.
Taken at Midnight reminds us of the dangers of both resistance and compromise in the face of despotic regimes. It reverberates for our times, too, not least when Litten’s loose canon of a cellmate, Pip Donahgy’s Erich Mühasm, faces the barrel of a shotgun yet refuses to stop satirising those threatening his free speech.
Designed by Robert Jones, Jonathan Church’s production has a hint of expressionistic nightmare, with gloomy concrete walls and fast-narrowing perspectives. Wilton and Hutson’s performances can’t be faulted, conveying suppressed fears as well as extraordinary dignity and courage. Their final meeting is desperately moving. Her encounters with Light’s Conrad generate tension as well, but his oscillations between friendliness and stiff-booted fascism can look schematic.
However important the subject matter, someone surely has to flag up that Hayhurst is not a great playwright. His dramatic effects are too discernibly engineered. He doesn’t wear his research lightly, either, producing dialogue that sounds distinctly writerly or rhetorically calculated. Old acquaintances’ exchanges are, moreover, absurdly stuffed with expositionary facts, including with people being informed of their own political affiliations. Ultimately I think I’d opt for the documentary.
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London. She also writes for and is an associate professor at the University of Reading.


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