Taken at Midnight (Chichester Minerva)

‘The play’s triumph is to show us that totalitarianism isn’t all jackboots and torture chambers’

Martin Hutson (Hans) and Dermot Mclaughlin (SA Officer)
Martin Hutson (Hans) and Dermot Mclaughlin (SA Officer)
© Manuel Harlan

The notion of Adolf Hitler in a witness box, cross-examined as to whether he believed in violence or not, sounds like a wild fantasy. But this unlikely event really did happen and is the subject of Mark Hayhurst's excellent play.

The unassuming hero is Hans Litten, a lawyer with a record for fighting for workers who is, as the title suggests, taken at midnight as a revenge for the humiliation he visited upon Hitler.

Hayhurst explored this theme in his television play, The Man who Crossed Hitler, but this retelling adds an extra dimension. On one hand, this is an account of a particular period in Nazi Germany when, as the political prisoner, Carl von Ossietsky says "the Nazis weren't evil but learning how to be so". On the other, it's the story of a mother's relentless quest to protect her son: Hayhurst's triumph is that the play works so well on both levels.

This is in no small part due to Penelope Wilton's superb portrayal of Litten's mother Irmgard. A minor aristocrat thrust into the role of campaigner for the son's freedom, she makes herself as 'objectionable' as possible in any attempt to subvert authority, marrying her efforts to appear compliant to Nazi demands with a sardonic approach to the Nazis' lip service to the rule of law.

But there are other strong performances: John Light's suave Gestapo officer, Dr Conrad, outwardly sympathetic but with a lingering, festering hatred for Litten; Pip Donaghy's angry anarchist, demanding of his captors as to whether they were evil or just clowns and Martin's Hutson's idealistic Litten, refusing to be defeated by the system all stand out. Jonathan Church's production slips easily between the two narrative strands, helped by Robert Jones' two-tiered design.

But the play's real triumph is to show us that totalitarianism isn't all jackboots and torture chambers (although there's plenty of that) but comes with a veneer of respectability, the weasel words of Conrad as he talks of Litten being taken into custody for his own protection are being repeated today in hundreds of different tongues.

Taken at Midnight continues until 1 November 2014