TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT
United Players, Jericho Arts Centre, until 26th November
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Robert Blackburn
Taken at Midnight, currently performing at Jericho Arts Centre, is an examination of the life of Hans Litten and his treatment at the hands of the SA and then SS during Hitler's rise to power after calling him as a witness at a trial in 1931. Or so the blurb would have you believe. If you're going in and expecting a big portion of the play to show the battle of wits between Litten and Hitler you'll be sorely disappointed.
The main protagonist of the play is actually Hans' mother, played by Suzanne Ristic, and her desperate attempt to have Hans freed from the German prison camps and then ultimately, Dachau, a concentration camp. Ristic did a fine job overall; stoic where she needed to be and indeed, excelled in it, although she did drop that mask a couple of times too early during Act One for my liking. If she'd kept at it, barreling through and then the final exasperation of emotion would have been more hauntingly memorable in the closing scene with her abused, brutalised son.
Where the play performed best was having naturalistic conversations, not playing any sort of sentimentality or self-pity. The ice cream scene between Ristic and Dr. Conrad (played by Brian Hinson) was the first time in the play I leant forward and really enjoyed the performances and writing.
Their scenes throughout the play were often the most interesting and it's because they were allowed to talk to each other and the script hadn't forced unnecessary exposition, which was used extensively in Act One, to the show's detriment.
Bizarrely playwright Mark Hayhurst has the character of Irmgard Litten break the fourth wall several times. Sometimes its an explanation of the time (although this being WW2 and most people having a working knowledge of that era, it did wear thin) so I can forgive him for that. But when it's mid-conversation with mind-numbingly stupid pointers such as, 'It's my husband'- we know it's your husband who's just walked on stage, we were introduced to him two scenes ago- it's unforgivable. But then not barely two minutes later, she turns to the audience again after he says, 'don't get your hopes up' and says to us, 'my hopes had risen'. Telling us the feelings of the character in such a ham-fisted, abhorrent way is a crime on writing and it's punishment is Taken At Midnight's first act.
So I didn't like Act One. Act Two, thankfully made up for it, with the more natural conversations and the cost becoming more intolerable on Irmgard and Hans, as his time in the camp increased. Sean Anthony's Hans comes out in the final scene utterly transformed into a dishevelled, abused, beaten man. His physicality matched the intention and there were some lovely, true moments in his final conversation with his mother. He was very good throughout in fact, maintaining a natural approach whilst reaching for the cadence and personality of someone from a German, Northern European cultural climate. Unfortunately many of his co-stars did not. The accents, apart from the three actors I've already mentioned, were generally useless and their “Northern Americaness” unfortunately got in the way of what should have been natural, nuanced diatribes with dollops of efficient irony.
The costumes, with my untrained eye, seemed to be top-notch and authentic; the set was effective in creating a sense of foreboding and splitting the play into it's different settings.
If the first half hadn't riled me up so much, what a play it could have been, but the fault I feel lies with the construction of the script rather than United Players' production of it.
By Kelly Moncton
With Remembrance Day right around the corner, Canadians often wear poppies, and talk of peace and the sacrifices of veterans. United Players’ production of Taken At Midnight feels very appropriate right now, as it shows the dangerous extremes that can lead to war. This glimpse at what comes before a conflict feels appropriate for this time of year, and this political climate.
The play centres on the real story of a German lawyer named Hans Litten, who dared to call Adolf Hitler as a witness in a court case in 1931. He convincingly connected Hitler to political violence by Nazi Brown Shirts at a time where the leader was still presenting himself as a respectable politician. Two years later, many political opponents of Hitler’s were rounded up on the same night that the German Parliament (Reichstag) burned.
The play starts with Litten’s imprisonment, but it’s clear from the beginning that we’re not going to spend all of our time in prison camps. Hans’ mother, Irmgard, spends years fighting for her son’s freedom. Through her battle, we see how ‘normal’ life in Germany changes very rapidly. Suzanne Ristic is compelling in the role, drawing the audience in to her rage, sadness, and love. She balances vulnerability and an old-world dignity beautifully.
There was an interesting contrast between Irmgard’s relationship with her husband Franz and her verbal sparring with a Nazi officer, Dr Conrad. The officer, played by Brian Hinson, seems to have a compulsion to please, or at least placate, Ms Litten. It was an interesting addition to the tensions, and helped provide some much-needed hope to the bleak story. In contrast, the husband and wife had less chemistry in their disagreements. If not for a more tender scene near the end, I would say it felt almost too cold.
Sean Anthony impressed with his journey through years of prison. His convictions and despair all felt painfully real, and his final scenes were especially intense and overwhelming.
A couple minor details distracted from the very strong production. Some actors worked to have a German accent, but it wasn’t consistent through the cast of German characters, and some names and words sounded distinctly English in a jarring way. One of Hans’ fellow prisoners had jarring make-up, which took away from the otherwise realistic and simple look of the show.
This story of life under the regime of a sensitive, dictatorial, extremist leader couldn’t be more timely. Taken At Midnight is a strong, brutal story which doesn’t pull many punches. Do see this quality show, but be ready for an intense experience.