The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre January-March 2015
Based on a true story, Mark Hayhurst's drama is a portrait of determination, motherly love and grace under pressure whose moral is that heroism lies not only in victory but in simply never giving up.
It is also the opportunity to watch one of our finest stage actresses bring rich and varied colours to a role that could have been monochromatic in other hands.
In 1931 German Jewish lawyer Hans Litten audaciously subpoenaed Adolf Hitler, then just leader of a splinter party, to testify at the trial of some of his followers, and embarrassed him on the stand. When Hitler came to power a year later, Litten was on the very long list of political enemies arrested, imprisoned, repeatedly beaten and eventually sent to pre-Holocaust concentration camps.
For the next five years Litten's mother led an unceasing campaign for his release – petitioning, appealing, bargaining and generally making a nuisance of herself. Hayhurst does tell us the end of the story, but his play lies in the parallel epics of the mother's commitment and the son's determination to survive in prison.
Irmgard Litten is played by the glorious Penelope Wilton, who guarantees that this is not just a hagiography but a complex and living characterisation.
She balances the woman's iron will with great warmth and the insight to realise that no mechanism can be beneath her, and that she must alternately flatter, lie, wheedle, compromise, be abusive, beg and debase herself, retaining dignity and our respect precisely because she is consciously doing these things as means toward an end.
And Wilton adds the quality she brings to many of her roles, convincing us that this woman is the smartest and quickest-thinking person in any room.
Her Irmgard is always several steps ahead of anyone she is speaking to, so they can never catch her off guard, while she is frequently exasperated with their difficulty keeping up with her, and even has enough mental energy left over for the occasional split-second flash of dark amusement at their absurdity or her own.
Wilton isn't stretched as a performer by this role, but she makes more of it than another actress could, enriching the play and our pleasure.
Irmgard's scenes alternate with those of Hans in prison, and Martin Hutson attractively makes it clear that the man is his mother's son, inheriting both her commitment and her sense of black humour, the ability to look at his situation from an ironic distance helping to explain his ability to survive brutalisation.
John Light gives strong support as the Gestapo officer who is Irmgard's primary contact with authority, making believable a man who to a degree sympathises with her pain and admires her strength, but who must eventually remind her forcefully that there can be no doubt where his allegiance lies.
Mike Grady and Pip Donaghy register as surprisingly cheerful fellow prisoners and David Yelland as a not-especially-helpful British diplomat. Jonathan Church's direction moves smoothly between the two strands of the story and guides everyone to realistic characterisations and a strong sense of time and place on an essentially bare stage.
The story of Taken At Midnight is inherently strong, but it is the performance of Penelope Wilton that will hold and remain with you.
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