Theatre Unlimited aim to present historically based material in a way that entertains, as well as educates, their target audience. Initially, Defying Hitler seems like an odd choice being a descriptive piece, rather than analytical and personal instead of objective. Yet these elements ensure that the play works as a theatrical presentation as much as an educational project. The impression it gives of Hitler as a brutal rabid thug raises questions as to how he was able to rise to power.
Defying Hitler, adapted by Rupert Wickham, traces Aryan Sebastian Haffner’s development from an enthusiastic teenage supporter of the Great Game of the First World War to a jaundiced observer of the lacklustre governments that followed and a puzzled survivor of the hyper-inflation period. He watches in disgust as the Nazi Party rises and, having endured their policies, eventually flees.
The title seems, initially, ironic- Haffner never actually defies the authorities and, when they become too much to endure, just does a runner. Eventually the point becomes clear – in a dictatorship anyone who does not actively support the state is seen (and is treated) as an enemy. It is possible to be defiant simply by being neutral. One of the more powerful details is that Haffner , as a civil servant is ordered to beat up anyone who does not demonstrate their enthusiasm for the party.
Director Peter Symonds opens up the story avoiding the static nature of a single actor show by using the full stage and employing techniques such as gunshots. Russell Bright brings out the flawed humanity of the far from heroic Haffner; making it possible to share his frustrated impotence and baffled obedience. The high point is Russell making a salute to the authorities he despises stuttering in shame that ‘This doesn’t matter’.
The play falls short of being a classic as Wickham’s adaptation is prosaic rather than dramatic. He fails to draw out the horrible irony that Haffner , whilst hating the Nazi Party , actually benefited from their policies. He was taken on as a newspaper writer in Berlin after all the Jewish writers were sacked and, upon immigrating to Britain, got work on The Observer because most of their journalists had been conscripted.
Defying Hitler is an interesting, but not entirely successful, attempt to use theatre for education as well as entertainment.