It’s hard to comfortably watch a set so sparse and foreboding while seated at the Theatre Royal, sumptuous, gilded and warm as it is. A single chair we know means torture, grey walls, the world seen in black and white, cold concrete — like some post-apocalyptic underground car park. The story of left wing Jewish lawyer Hans Litten’s legal pursuit of Hitler through the German courts has been uncovered in recent years through Mark Hayhurst’s TV drama The Man Who Crossed Hitler and a documentary, To Stop a Tyrant.
This is the story of Litten’s mother. Penelope Wilton owns the stage as Irmgard Litten. We see the rise of the Nazi party in early 1930s Germany through her eyes, as she battles with the Gestapo to free her son. The play’s subtle contemporary message is the role women continue to play in bearing witness to tyranny. Irmgard, like many mothers of the “disappeared”, does not begin as a political woman but swiftly learns to survive in order to put her son’s case.
The impact of a fractured left resistance during the rise of the Nazis is played out in the early prison scenes.
Newspaper editor Carl Von Ossietzky (Mike Grady) and anarchist Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy) joke that the political round-ups into “protective custody” on the night of the Reichstag fire in February 1933 are the first time socialists, communists and anarchists have got together in years. They jest that Litten described Hitler in court as a cross between “Baron Munchhausen and Attila the Hun” and laugh that Hitler was only spared further humiliation through the intervention of the judge.
As Litten’s incarceration continues and Irmgard’s efforts to free him step up, Hitler’s malice towards his opponents and the depravity of the Nazi regime are further revealed. Hans Litten is an empathetic character skilfully played by Martin Hutson, who gives a heart-wrenching performance revealing a true spirit of resistance.
Hayward reminds us of Britain’s reluctance initially to criticise Hitler. A British diplomat, Lord Clifton Allen (David Yelland) who Irmgard petitions to plead for her son, reminds her that “aggressive international campaigns often do more harm than good”. The complex characters, clever structure and dialogue carry us through an informative and engrossing drama. The stage lighting finally imposes a huge shadow of the mother against the back wall of the prison block, representing all mothers, opposing tyranny and waiting, demanding justice for their lost children.