This new play by Mark Hayhurst transfers from the Chichester Festival and brings the story of the incarceration of Hans Litten to the stage, timely so in this lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day. Litten’s mother, Irmgard (Penelope Wilton), at the start of the play, claims that the name of Sonnenburg concentration camp would stand for shorthand for the cruelty of the Nazi regime, but of course the events of the post-Reichstag Fire round-up of political prisoners into long-term ‘protective custody’ was only the start.
I hadn’t been that aware of Litten before seeing this play, although the programme makes reference to an earlier drama ‘The Man Who Crossed Hitler’ and documentary ‘How to Stop a Tyrant’ from the same writer, both of which are easily located online, to give a full picture of the story which is finished, here, in the stage play ‘Taken at Midnight’.
Litten (Martin Hutson) was a bright lawyer who identified as a Jewish atheist, the adoption of the ‘Jewish’ being taken from his father, who had himself converted to Christianity some time before. The bright lawyer subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to the stand and humiliated him during a lengthy cross-examination and so when the Gestapo take power he is one of the first in line to face arrest and a form of revenge in torture and degradation in custody, while his mother uses her quiet and righteous rage as a German woman to tackle his freedom head-on, notably in exchanges with the initially sympathetic Dr Conrad (John Light).
This play is about Irmgard Litten and her crusade to free her son just as much as it is the story of Litten and his comrades in captivity – Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady), a pacifist who gains the Nobel Peace Prize while under arrest; and Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy), a cabaret performer and satirist. We also see Litten’s father, Fritz (Allan Corduner) a man who lacks the conviction to make the difference his wife feels she can, as well as an English aristocrat, Lord Allen (David Yelland) who is ultimately powerless to intervene in the Fuhrer’s detention and murder of political prisoners for reasons of his own country’s political expediencies.
‘Taken at Midnight’ is a powerful watch, and a difficult one, especially in the second half where the lightness, where there was lightness, of the earlier scenes, becomes very bleak indeed. To see the growth of a regime which is just as corrupt as the one it replaced, but with a dictator in charge who is revered by diplomats outside of Germany, is chilling in retrospect when you have the knowledge of the full impact of Kristellnacht and the Final Solution. Dr Conrad’s words to Mrs Litten about Hans not having the choice to be Jewish makes one stop and pause, and the final speech of the bereaved mother, about events in Dachau, and not having stopped screaming, is one which can only provoke devastation.
Wilton is frankly superb here but she heads an excellent cast, and it is a true privilege to be able to spend time in their company hearing this tale which is just one of many, but one which should not be forgotten, especially in these dark days where the freedom of speech is under threat.