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Revenge tragedy

PAUL DONOVAN recommends a powerful new drama on what befell the family of Hans Litten, the man who dared take Hitler to task

Taken at Midnight at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

ON THE February night in 1933 when the Reichstag parliament building was burnt down in Germany, among the many rounded up was Jewish left-leaning lawyer Hans Litten, a defender of workers’ rights during the Weimar republic.

He was targeted as a leading political opponent of the nazis because in 1931 he dared to cross-examine Hitler in court — an act which made him a marked man.

After his arrest Litten spent the rest of his life in various concentration camps, enduring torture and endless interrogations. Eventually he was moved to Dachau where he committed suicide in 1938.

While a number of memorials to him exist in Germany, Litten was largely ignored for decades because his politics did not fit comfortably with post-war anti-communist propaganda in the West. In Britain, it was not until 2011 that Litten’s courage was recognised in Mark Hayhurst’s BBC drama The Man Who Crossed Hitler, set in Berlin in the summer of 1931.

But Taken at Midnight, Hayhurst’s gripping stage version, focuses on the persecution of the family, with events viewed mainly through the eyes of Litten’s mother Irmgard, brilliantly played by Penelope Wilton.

The realities of a mother’s suffering are laid bare as she interacts with her husband Fritz (Allan Corduner), the hapless Lord Clifford Allen (David Yelland) — who arrives from England to plead for her son with Hitler — and SS officer Dr Conrad (John Wright).

What is actually happening to Litten (Martin Hutson) operates as a virtual subplot in the background, played out with some black humour.

There is a chilling moment, though, when Hitler’s prosecution is recalled. His accusation against the fuhrer, who he charges with running the murderous SA thugs, certainly resonates: “In your quest for respectability I think we can say you have been talking out of both corners of your mouth. One corner talks to your rich backers, the other to your street fighters.”

Brilliantly directed by Jonathan Church, and with an outstanding cast, Hayhurst’s play underlines the brutality and hatred of the nazis and Hitler’s notorious thirst for revenge against anyone who crossed him, let alone prosecuted him in court.

Wilton’s virtuoso performance brings out the different layers of suffering of a mother campaigning to win her son’s freedom, all to little effect, and the play’s most gripping scenes are between her and Dr Conrad.

He comes across as the calculating nazi officer playing with his powerless victim yet who, appearing in civvies, buys her an ice cream and shows a more “human” side.

Yet, though the brutality quickly returns, the essential bravery of the whole Litten family in forlornly battling for justice against the nazis is what lingers in the mind.

Runs until March 14, box office: trh.co.uk

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