Based on Rebecca West's experiences as a reporter at the Nuremberg Trials for war crimes in 1946, Kenneth Jupp's thought-provoking new play forces us to re-examine our pre-conceived notions about responsibility for the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the subsequent atrocities of the Holocaust. And with the recent and ongoing trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, the subject could hardly be more apposite.
Framed by West giving public readings from her book about the trials, A Train of Powder, the action focuses on the case of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's Minister of Economics, who claimed to be just 'doing his job' and not complicit in the crimes against humanity - although his financial genius enabled the Nazi regime to flourish.
West is sympathetic to her friend Tom Morton, the American lawyer prosecuting Schacht, who is still recovering from the trauma of witnessing the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. But she starts an affair with one of the US judges, Francis Biddle, who believes that high-minded principle must sometimes give way to political pragmatism, especially when an economically strong Germany is needed in a post-war Europe where the expanding Soviet Union is seen as the new enemy to Western democratic values.
Auriol Smith's nicely paced production makes full use of the in-the-round theatre's suitability for courtroom drama, with the participants addressing the audience so that we feel compelled to take sides. In defending himself, Schacht coolly compares his situation to that of Einstein, who should not be held responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki although his Theory of Relativity made the atom bomb possible. Morton's emotional cross-examination, on the other hand, stresses Schacht's close links with the appalling industrial efficiency of the death camps.
The play is less successful though when following the personal relationships that develop out of court. West's sudden submission to Biddle's comforting embrace after hearing that her former lover H.G. Wells has just died is not very convincing – in fact, it would have been better to keep Wells out of it altogether as he is misleadingly held up as a paragon of political idealism, despite his notorious anti-Semitism and interest in eugenics.
Julia Watson gives a highly self-assured performance as West, portraying an independently minded and sexually liberated woman who is shocked by the establishment's moral compromises to realpolitik. Steven Elder movingly shows how Morton's professional role is also very much a personal crusade, with devastating consequences for his own well-being, while David Yelland's smoothly detached Biddle is the consummate politician for whom the ends sometimes justify the means. Finally, Charles Kay is a chillingly complacent Schacht, as he gives a sophisticated self-justification of 'following orders'.