Hampstead Theatre celebrates the second decade of its fifty years with a meticulous production by Michael Rudman (artistic director, 1973-78) of a new play about Irish neutrality during the Second World War by Ian Kennedy Martin, veteran television writer of such series as Bergerac, The Sweeney, and Juliet Bravo.
If the play has been knocking around in a bottom drawer, it doesn’t show: this is a remarkable stage debut that enshrines all the virtues of the Rudman era – intelligence, accurate and detailed design, fine acting, big issues – without looking like a throwback. It’s one of the best new plays of the Anthony Clark era, too.
The setting, beautifully realised in filing cabinets, parquet flooring, desk-top minutiae and a slightly offstage kitchen area by designer Paul Farnsworth, is the Irish consulate in Berlin in 1942. The premises are visited by a German security officer, Kollvitz (Peter Moreton), on the warpath for Jews and Communists, inveigling himself in the kitchen favours of the legation’s resident skivvy, Christe (Isla Carter), whose mother was Polish.
Kollvitz, whose conversation is exclusively interrogatory, closes in on his prey with a scene that makes uneasy voyeurs of us all: Christe is ordered to strip stark naked while he takes photographs and promises her safe passage. The shock of this scene, which closes the first act, is sewn into the overriding theme of betrayal in the play.
Two Irish officials, Mallin and O’Kane, represent not only different Irish attitudes but different political temperaments. Sean Campion’s Mallin is a buttoned-up puritan jobs worth, a committed nationalist, delving into the evidence explaining a former colleague’s defection, possibly as a spy, while Owen McDonnell’s junior O’Kane, scion of a big Dublin family with personal links to Prime Minister Eamon de Valera, is more susceptible to the awakening realisation of what’s going on.
The scenes are punctuated with newsreel footage of Nazi rallies, Luftwaffe raids and the wreckage of Cologne around its still standing cathedral. The Irish Catholic church, like the Pope, it can be argued, turned a blind eye to the deportation of Jews in the name of neutrality.
When do you finally take a stand? It’s a perennial question that cuts through the equivocal two-stepping of the Irish officials, whom Campion and McDonnell play, delightfully, as a double act comparable to Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.