As the lights go down, an old man rises from his seat in the audience. Mumbling and spitting, he makes his way down to the empty stage. It is Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy. After 40 years of incarceration, the elderly man has evaded his prison guards on a trip to the hospital, and wound up here, in a theatre with an audience.
The one-man play is opened with a question. Why is modern European society still preoccupied with the Nazis? He’s right: with recent films such as Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Son of Saul (2015), as well as books detailing the horrors of the Holocaust such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), the Nazi party remains a popular topic. The simple fact that Hess can fill a theatre at the fringe shows this. The reason, Hess claims, is that secretly, deep down, we all love the Third Reich as the nation that ‘dared to dream’.
The two most outstanding themes of this play is the question of justice and responsibility in relation to war. Firstly, Hess argues that the Nuremburg trials were a continuation of war and not an act of justice. And he is convincing. If the trials were a fair execution of the law, why were the Nazi leaders tried only by British, American, French and Russian judges – those they were fighting against? ‘Don’t put revenge in a pretty dress and call it justice’.
Secondly, he rages that everyone involved in war is tainted by its monstrosity; everyone involved in war commits monstrous acts. So why was it only the Germans who were imprisoned afterwards?
Exceptional writing and phenomenal acting accompany these fascinating themes. The playwright Michael Burrell successful evokes a degree sympathy for the deputy Führer by portraying the life sentence as a death sentence drawn out over 40 years. Derek Crawford Munn is extraordinary as Hess. He ranges from the vulnerability of an elderly man to the terror of the politician responsible for the Nuremburg Laws. From the accent to minor physical twitches, he is utterly scrupulous with the details. The use of lighting is also very effective, creating huge shadows and bathing Hess in red at the pinnacle of horror.
This play is successful in undermining the authority of history books that are written by the victorious. It leaves one with new and lingering questions about what we have been taught over and over again at school. What is most impressive, however, is its portrayal of a personal tragedy within an international atrocity.