Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (Union Theatre)

Brecht’s 1938 play charts the power Nazism exerted over the ordinary people of Germany

There was a time on the fringe when Brecht was regularly produced, but the only revival of this fascinating piece I have seen was at the Glasgow Citizens in 1980 (Alan Rickman and Fidelis Morgan in the cast) although one of the best of the two dozen sketches in the play, The Jewish Wife, has often re-surfaced.

Heiner Muller, Mark Ravenhill and Tony Kushner have all responded to this short-scene material, linked by a poetic narrative; so, double kudos to Phil Willmott for directing (and appearing in) his own new company version – using the fine translation by John Willett, greatest of British Brechtians – at the Union.

Written over three years, 1935-8, when Brecht was in exile in Denmark during the rise of the Third Reich, it charts the terror of thuggery and anti-semitism in Berlin as the economy collapses and paranoia sets in big time.

For that reason, Fear and Misery is both an essential historical document and a temperature gauge of what happens in any country – in Syria, or Africa, today – when a dictatorship turns on its own citizens in the name of patriotism, morality or "cleansing." And Brecht writes brilliantly and unusually naturalistically for him, demanding empathy (not "alienation") for the depressed, denounced and disenfranchised.

Nick Corrall and Sasha Regan's design is a tilted, frosted two-way mirror behind a pile of broken domestic furnishings and plastic sheeting, the cast assembling in white masks (which later become Hitler masks), the narrator (Joe Dowling) in brown shirt and swastika armband. Hitler youths prowl the action, dispensing kicks and abuse and incriminatory white chalk crosses. It's an authorised campaign of terror, loading innocents and dissenters alike on their (unseen) battle wagon.

Some of the acting is crude and the overall aesthetic rudimentary, but this is a salutary reminder of Brecht's power and influence at a time when Pinter, Beckett and Caryl Churchill are more regularly invoked as household gods. And the best of the sketches are outstanding models of skilful, slippery writing and dramatic pressure.

A married couple fret about their son joining the Hitler Youth when he's gone out to buy a bag of sweets and tie themselves in knots over whether or not he's telling the truth when he returns. A judge, charged with convicting a Jewish jeweller whose shop has been smashed up, questions his priorities and covers his own back (Willmott as the judge ends up in a panicky tangle worthy of the late John Fortune).

And, in an extended monologue with phone calls, the departing Jewish wife (Clara Francis in the role first played by Helene Weigel at the Paris premiere in 1938) says goodbye to her life, her friends, and her husband who's kidding himself the plague will pass in two weeks: "It can't go on like this. It's just an infection."

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich runs at the Union Theatre until 30 January.