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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


NT Live and BBC iPlayer   May 2024

C P Taylor's 1981 drama was revived in the West End in autumn 2023, with David Tennant in the role created by Alan Howard. It was recorded in performance and is available on NT Live and BBC iPlayer.

Taylor's play is a study in the seductiveness of evil, as a “good German” in the 1930s finds himself being drawn slowly under the spell of the Nazi ideology.

Tennant's character is introduced as a liberal humanist, an academic whose oldest and closest friend is a Jew, who he repeatedly assures that the Nazis are a flash in the pan and their anti-Semitism just some attention-grabbing political rhetoric.

The professor once wrote a novel approving of mercy euthanasia for the aged and ill whose lives no longer had any quality, and he is flattered when the Nazi leadership invite him to elaborate on that in lectures and articles.

Along the way it becomes just convenient and practical to join the party – a token commission in the SS brings a bigger house, and the uniforms are so handsome. Where the play is taking him is so clear that I don't think it requires a spoiler alert to say that he winds up in charge of the 'euthanasia' at Auschwitz.

Actor Tennant and director Dominic Cooke actually make the play even darker than it was in 1981. Alan Howard played the man as a total innocent hardly noticing what was happening to him, more a puppet manipulated by those around him (who also include his wife, his mistress and his mother) than a conscious free agent.

But Tennant makes him at least partially self-aware, knowing, for example, that he really likes the perks of party membership, and that he is a man whose immediate personal comfort means more than any abstract morality. (He leaves his wife largely because she's just such a drag.)

In a string of conversations with his increasingly frightened friend, he is clearly aware that he is lying and defending the indefensible.

And so, rather than being the story of a man seduced into evil, the play shows him an eager (if not always quite consciously so) collaborator in his own corruption.

Not everything in the production is as strong as the central performance. The play is presented on an almost bare stage and in ordinary street clothes with the exception of one shocking costume change I've already hinted at.

There are only two other actors (and the very brief appearance of a third) playing Everyone Else. Elliot Levey is the Jewish friend and a strong of Nazis, and Sharon Small wife, mistress, mother and various others, each of the performers sometimes switching roles in mid-sentence.

While this device is more than a gimmick – one of the play's points is that Tennant's character isn't really aware of other people as anything more than servicing his needs – it runs the risk of drawing attention to its cleverness and the actors' versatility and away from the point being made.

The same risk is there in Taylor's imagining the character as living his life to an internal music track, with various moments punctuated by bits of classical and popular music we hear as well. (The 1981 production had onstage musicians invisible to everyone but us.)

Not just a random character quirk and a way of signalling a scene's emotional content, this builds toward a climactic coup de theatre that I didn't find as overwhelming as it clearly wanted to be.

Gerald Berkowitz

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