This is writer Mark Hayhurst’s third account (following a drama and a documentary for BBC Television) of German lawyer Hans Litten, who in 1931 summoned Hitler to appear as a witness in the trial of four stormtroopers accused of murder. In a three-hour examination Litten demonstrated what a sham the Nazi party’s claims to political legitimacy were. Hitler never forgave him, and on the night of the Reichstag fire Litten was taken into “protective custody”. After five years of beatings and torture he hanged himself in Dachau in 1938.
This play, which comes into London in a production first seen at Chichester in the autumn, focuses on the efforts of Litten’s mother to secure his release and her dogged refusal either to give up or to be intimidated by Gestapo officialdom.
Penelope Wilton exudes indomitability from every pore as Irmgard Litten, both in the drama proper and in the testimony of her narration. Martin Hutson as Hans embodies rather more human limits to resistance, but still shows a powerful adherence to principle. Allan Corduner as Litten’s father is more contemplative, and therefore in the moral scheme of the play weaker; John Light as the Gestapo officer in charge of the case is as urbane as one can be in jackboots, eschewing menace or threats in favour of a managerial strain of villainy.
Director Jonathan Church’s tenure at Chichester has shown him to be skilled at walking a fine line between opposing points of view. There can only be one set of moral expectations here, however: we see sympathetically portrayed personal complexities within the Litten family, but Hayhurst seems to be embracing the current orthodoxy that even the slightest humanising of Nazi characters is unthinkable. The play opened to press on the day a British MP suggested the possibility of banning Mein Kampf, which even cautious Germany has not done. One does not overcome evil by prohibiting full scrutiny of it.