Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 3 June 2017
It is Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, 1941. In the Jermyn’s tight intimacy we are sitting in the clinical director’s office of a home for disabled and mentally incapable children: “incurables”. We watch a series of the paediatrician’s meetings, from chill dawn light to evening candleglow, in a study beautifully evocative of old bourgeois Germany and bathed from time to time in equally evocative Bach and Mozart from the radio Dr Victor impatiently tunes away from broadcasts about Herr Goebbels.
He is ailing, coughing and weakened: his clinic is three months in to a new regime laid down by the National Socialist government. Each week a grey bus arrives (with blanked out windows to avoid distressing “hardworking families of the Third Reich” ). It collects some thirty of the inmates, between infancy and the age of 25, and takes them off to be gassed. The principle is economic: they are deemed “lebensunwurtens Leben” – lives not worth of life . The cost of their maintenance would, in the sternly pragmatic thinking of the New Germany, be better deployed on the productive citizenry,. And of course on armaments.
This is history: in the first two years of war some 100,000 disabled people were killed from such clinics. Writer-director Stephen Unwin, himself devoted father of a son with learning disabilities and chair of the national KIDS charity, infuses the awful record with a powerful and palpably personal eloquence as he imagines Victor’s encounters on a day which may move him from a depressed but helpless complicity to a dangerous moral resistance. Colin Tierney is strong in the difficult central role, not least when the doctor nerves himself to argue the case he cannot really believe; and also when, confronted by a suspicious mother of a boy already dispatched, he cracks and admits the truth.
Sometimes the author’s determination to air enough aspects of the ghastly business creates an unevenness in the hero’s psychological progress, but in the end that hardly matters. It is the meetings which strike home. There is the good motherly Catholic maidservant, Martha (Rebecca Johnson, sweetly credible) and the rather brilliantly appalling SS man Schmidt, seconded as administrative director. Edward Franklin is immaculately Nazi, with clean-cut cheekbones and a cold eye, whistling the Horst-Wessel-lied and punctilious in his Heil-Hitlers. He brings in files of names to which Victor must say “yes..yes…yes… yes…yes…No, not yet for young Karsten I think…yes..yes…No, not Edith Manstein. Really no. I heard her singing the other day…”
At this point one wonders whether the play might have had more bite if we hadn’t been told, in publicity beforehand, what is happening. But the shock is pretty good all the same. Especially when a grateful mother, the widowed Frau Pabst, brings the good doctor some stollen and enquires about her son Stefan, who it inevitably turns out was a “Yes” only last month. Lucy Speed is wonderful in the role: a tiny, bright-eyed, overalled factory worker whose Cockney humility turns into a towering, furious rage when she finally understands.
And then there is David Yelland as a pivotal historic figure in the whole story: Cardinal Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, an aristocratic Catholic prelate and fierce traditional conservative, who during that year preached strongly against the cull of disabled people and challenged the entire ideology of Nazism. He survived Hitler’s displeasure, probably because of fear of alienating the many German Catholics who could just about put up with the regime or preferred not to know. But in Unwin’s imagined encounter Galen takes on the weary Victor with immense eloquence and principle, his unassailable moral confidence battering down all the weak arguments (“all medicine is a matter of priorities..doctors are always involved in making touch choices”) like a sainted bull in a china shop.
So – while the whole theme is historically fascinating, and the character and pathos of each character is well done – it is this duel scene which gives the play proper dramatic fascination. Because what we are watching is a clash of two men: one is a hardworking functionary who is tired, ill and in mental torment and has just been spat upon by a grieving mother and threatened by his SS subordinate . The other is a well-fed, aristocratic, self-confident and bullying presence, a grandee who has been wafted here by his driver from a bishop’s palace, resplendent in a red skullcap and sash. The human instinct to feel for the hectored victim – Victor – is at odds with the plain fact that the overbearing Cardinal is absolutely right. And that is dramatically interesting and unsettling.
After a final swaggering entrance from the terrible Schmidt , voicing drunken disgust at the “blind dumb faces, drooling mouths” of the inmates and glorying in the new Reich, and a corresponding moment of good Martha as she begins to understand the horror, you emerge sober. You feel as if you’d been there, and were more than glad to be home in 2017.