Hans Litten was the young Jewish lawyer who subpoenaed Adolf Hitler. For years his incredible story was lost among the millions of deaths and innumerable horrors of the Holocaust but he has since been the subject of a book, a documentary and a drama. Now, in Taken at Midnight, an astonishing new play by Mark Hayhurst, his mother Irmgard Litten is put on a metaphorical witness stand to give her testimony.
Robert Jones’ sparse set, thick with shadows from Tim Mitchell’s lighting, sets a suitably gloomy scene. When the brilliantly written dialogue begins we’re whisked into the moment. It is February 1933. We are in Berlin and the Reichstag is on fire. Hitler is about to seize power and Hans Litten has been taken at midnight.
When the SA brownshirts tell Irmgard that her son is being held in Sonnenburg concentration camp “for his own good” she takes matters into her own hands. With her fists clenched with determination, her head high with dignity and emanating a remarkably calm patience she begins to visit the Gestapo headquarters every day, even threatening a Nazi officer. As a respectable German lady, she tells Gestapo Dr Conrad, she has a powerful voice in society that she’s not afraid to use.
After several harrowing scenes of the prisoners’ torture, news begins to filter out of Sonnenburg to the anxious waiting families. Irmgard detaches herself from her personal anguish to play the Nazis at their own game: she reels off a catalogue of her son’s terrible injuries like she’s reading a shopping list and even stitches cyanide into a jacket for him. Penelope Wilton is magnificent in the part, packing unspoken emotion into her careful poise and pragmatic stoicism.
While his mother petitions the Gestapo in Berlin, Hans (Martin Hutson) lies battered and bruised in his cell. His inmates Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady) and Erich Mühsam (Pip Donaghy), political prisoners too, discuss freedom of speech, their previous activism, and stick to their beliefs with remarkable bravery despite the brutality they suffer at the hands (and weapons) of notorious Storm 33. Eric’s refusal to die a coward – flinging dirty insults at the brownshirts until he meets his horrific end at point blank range – is painful to watch.
In one of the most disturbing scenes there’s not a swastika in sight. Dr Conrad (John Light) has hung up his black uniform for the day for a stroll around the Tiergarten when he encounters Irmgard. He buys her an ice cream and speaks to her like an old friend. When the ice creams appear just after the interval, when the audience have finished their own little pots, there’s a brief laughter from the crowd. Then watching the human side of the Nazi regime quickly becomes chilling, shocking to the core with a severity not unlike a frozen treat-induced brainfreeze.
Taken at Midnight’s potency is doubtless multiplied by recent events. The importance of free speech speaks to the recent Paris attack and Irmgard’s plight has even more terrible resonance with the turmoil of Junko Ishido (mother of the Japanese hostage Kenji Goto who was recently killed by IS) fresh in our minds. We might have been able to watch from a distance once, telling ourselves that we have learnt from the sufferings of Nazi Germany, but now the Littens’ story parallels those we see on the daily news.
Between the history-rich speeches the action is gripping, edge of your seat stuff. This makes the quiet tragedy of the play’s sombre and deeply affecting ending harder to bear. Even among the current proliferation of Holocaust stories, Nazi atrocities continue to shock. Taken at Midnight is an intense experience. It will knock you for six.