Speer at the Almeida Theatre

Albert Speer is often seen as one of the 20th century s great contradictions - the good (or at least not too bad) Nazi. The man, who started as an architect and went on to serve as Hitler s ultra-efficient armaments minister, admitted his guilt at Nuremberg, served his 20 years and was reincarnated as the aforesaid decent Nazi. But just how good or guilty was he? Was he aware of the fate of the Jews, the source of his free labour?

Esther Vilar s play examines these questions in the context of an imagined 1980 meeting between Speer and an East German official, who look back over Speer s career. But Vilar opts ambitiously to expand from the personal to the geopolitical - and succeeds in examining the very nature of the East German state itself.

The jury is still out on whether Speer was guilty of compliance in his crimes or ‘just following orders . Vilar doesn t come down strongly on a either side in this debate, but there s an inference that her sympathies are with the view that Speer knew more than he let on. However, she skilfully avoids overplaying this, instead maintaining the ambiguity of the character throughout.

In this, she is greatly helped by the presence of one of Europe s greatest actors. Klaus Maria Brandauer s Speer is a charming, humorous, sardonic individual who, occasionally, just occasionally, shows glimpses of the cruelty that drove a man to employ Jewish slaves in factories across Europe. If there s a criticism of his performance, it s that his idiosyncratic pronunciation of English phrases sometimes interferes with the audience s understanding.

As impressive as Brandauer s performance is Sven Eric Bechtholf in the role of Bauer, the fictitious East German official. By turns angry and sympathetic, frustrated and powerful, trapped by the part he has to play within a totalitarian state, Bauer is ultimately the tragic hero of the piece.

Brandauer directs the play himself and brings a sense of the dramatic to what is essentially a play of ideas. There might not be many great dramatic twists (although there are a few), but as a play that deals with the nature of totalitarianism and personal freedom, Speer has few equals. In the end, it comes down to one thing - just how much should we venerate a great mind, a great organiser, if there s no moral vision? In this age when governments are increasingly letting business people call the shots, never has there been such a need for this question to be asked.

Maxwell Cooter