Albert Speer at the National - Lyttelton
Like Number 73 buses, you wait ages and ages for one and then two come along at once: after last year's Speer by Esther Vilar at the Almeida, we now have Albert Speer by David Edgar at the National. But the curious fact is that, until I saw Vilar's play, I had never heard of him; but it wasn't until I saw Edgar's that I now feel I really know him.
The two plays couldn't be more different. Vilar's was a wordy, worthy two-hander, with Speer interrogated on his moral responsibility long after the war; but though Edgar inevitably looks at the same question, it offers a much more kaleidoscopic, detailed examination of the man, his motives, his past and his present.
The closest thing Hitler had to a personal friend, Speer was an architect (who had major plans to rebuild Berlin as a testament to the Fuhrer's power) who became Germany's Minister for Armaments during the war. He escaped with his life at the Nuremberg Trials and was sent to Spandau instead. But Speer never escaped his conscience and, on being released after twenty years imprisonment, he published a best-selling account of the Third Reich.
Edgar's play, based on Gitta Sereny's definitive biography of the man, dazzlingly theatricalises, but never trivialises, the trajectory of this man's life. The first act, which begins with his arrival at Spandau, takes the form of flashbacks, with Spandau's prison pastor as his interrogator and confessor. If overlong at nearly two hours, this section of the play has a wealth of revealing detail, and an extraordinary scene when Speer's father comes to his offices to see his son's model for a new Berlin, and meets Hitler.
It's in the second act, however, that the drama really takes hold, with Speer being released from prison and reunited with his family. These deeply personal scenes are also intimately moving. But a bigger question is constantly hovering in the air - How much did Speer personally know about the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other minorities? Edgar's play finally makes Speer confront something he may have constantly avoided in life, and I do not want to give away the result.
But I will say that in Trevor Nunn's tremendous, panoramic production (superbly designed by Ian MacNeil), it is extraordinarily played by a cast of 27 actors, led by Alex Jennings in peak, anguished form as Speer. The first act is also dominated by the disturbing and charismatic presence of Roger Allam's Hitler.