With the possible exception of what might happen in the stands when Millwall visit Elland Road, the most harrowing sight on offer in Yorkshire this month will probably be York Theatre Royal’s The White Crow. Written by American Donald Freed and first performed at Mercury Theatre in Colchester, it imagines a pair of interviews between former Nazi colonel Adolf Eichmann and Israeli psychologist Dr Baum in 1960. The mismatch is rendered particularly restless because Baum left Germany in 1939 as a refugee, and is either unable or unwilling to tell Eichmann whether her children died under his command. Robert Pickavance and Sonia Petrovna, steered by YTR artistic director Damian Cruden, are thus required to visit most of the sharpest contours across the terrain of human emotion, except the happy ones.
The main piece in Lydia Denno’s set is what an all-in-one fold-out Ikea conservatory might look like, but the use of glass panels and blinds gives fitting formality to what are ostensibly legal proceedings. It also seems to shield house-trained humanity’s representatives from the demolished decorum in front of us. Hence its removal in the second half, because the audience’s eyes have, by now, adjusted to the darkness. The props, notably a stack of files, a projector, a microphone and a blackboard, are similarly straight-talking (pardon the partial pun).
Initially, neither performer is wholly convincing. They don’t seem sure about how their characters behave when not ransacking their souls. Pickavance’s accent is especially troublesome – it’s a sort of RP laced with droplets of German (a kind interpretation might be that, since Eichmann’s ageing process has had the happy side-effect of dramatic weight loss, he’s concentrating on holding his trousers up). However, as they enter the play’s gritty main event they become to their characters what the recently departed are to the Mysterons. Pickavance pounces on each of Eichmann’s jerky moodswings, and Petrovna captures a woman staggering between attempting to perform professional duties and catapulting forth her crushing burden of pent-up angst. Both tackle their roles with near-scholarly exactness but so much vigour that I keep wanting to ring a bell and offer each of them a sponge and a towel.
There’s something slightly docu-drama about Craig Vear’s soundtrack. Some inclusions, for example, snippets from some of Hitler’s tirade-cum-speeches, suggest that the recollection that Eichmann is currently having is particularly pungent. However, some are the sort of signposts marked “eerie” that, partnered by images of ill-lit cheekbones and plodding shoes, are normally used by Channel Five as extended prologues to reconstructions of events which lasted between five and twenty seconds. Others sound like what Massive Attack might compose if a bout of gangrene forced them to get their arms amputated and play with their toes. It’s not an ill-judged soundtrack, but parts are superfluous – this play demands raw materials of quality and little more.
This production is well worth seeing – unless you’re the sort of person who’ll refuse to watch something on the grounds that it might make them melancholy.