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A CurtainUp London Review
Albert Speer

By Lizzie Loveridge

I should have known
I could have known
I didn't know
- - Albert Speer
Albert Speer is a new play by David Edgar about the man who was Hitler's second in command and who escaped hanging after the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals at the end of the Second World War. Based on Gitta Sereny's book Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, the play is distinctly in two halves. The first starts in Spandau prison with Speer telling the story of his life up to 1945 to a Catholic priest. The second half deals with Speer's life from his release from prison in 1966 until his death in 1981.

Director Trevor Nunn lures us into a seductive and attractive, but highly misleading, account: Speer's spin on the events of the 1930s. The audience knows what barbaric evil took place under Adolf Hitler and yet with the story told through Speer's eyes, Hitler is pictured as an approachable man with Germany's interests at heart. As Speer paints the picture he also places Speer himself, in the best possible light. If this sounds like an apology for Hitler, it's not. In the play's second half Speer is confronted by his critics, asked questions that he cannot answer and the holes in his account are clearly shown.

The material covered is similar to that of C.P. Taylor's play Good (produced at the Donmar last year) about how an ostensibly "good" German was drawn into the Nazi party. Sereny, the author of the source book, who is Hungarian but not Jewish, is not alone in thinking that Albert Speer believed his own story that he had not known about the "Final Solution". No less a man than Simon Wiesenthal too believed Speer. Like Sereny, Wiesenthal thought that the Nazi policy of compartmentalisation, whereby no-one was expected to take an interest in any area outside their own specific responsibility, might have kept people in ignorance. Speer, although he started as architect to Hitler, ultimately became Minister for Ammunitions and was responsible for using "slave" labour from Germany's occupied territories to fuel Germany's war effort. Sereny believes that both Hitler and Speer, being deprived of love as children, found fulfilment by placing that love elsewhere -- Hitler in nationalism and "love" for Aryans and Speer in his love for the Fuhrer.

The play has two star performances: The immensely likeable Roger Allam as Hitler and Alex Jennings who handles the mammoth role of portraying Speer over a 50 year period.

Allam's Hitler is not the table thumping, hectoring leader we have seen on film, but a man who cares deeply about his country. The National Theatre makeup and wig team have ensured a strong physical resemblance. Allam has the posture, the inflection in Hitler's voice to a T. It is when he mentions "French niggers" in a conversation that we are shocked out of our complacency. Jennings' performance as Speer, is a tour de force which makes it hard to resist the sincerity and charm he conveys. He is tall and handsome, always appearing above the fray. He also displays vulnerability, especially when his father visits him in Berlin and when his mother accuses him for not using his influence to get his brother transferred from the Russian front.

A large ensemble cast gives the kind of solid support that we have come to expect from the National under Nunn. Cathryn Bradshaw plays Eva Braun as a flibbertigibbet, an interpretation which I'm not sure is based on historical evidence.

Nunn and the design and lighting team have conjured some strong visual images to lend atmosphere to the production. Among the most memorable:
  • the hanging corpses of those condemned to death at Nuremberg
  • a red silk Swastika flag that unfurls and fills half the stage
  • a brilliant filmed scene, where in the middle of a screen showing the crowd at a Nazi rally, an aperture opens and emerging from the film we have figures emerging from film to stage
  • an architectural model of Speer's redesigned Berlin standing proud and icy white, like some kind of miniature city to remind us that Speer was given the opportunity to express his art and his love of beauty.
  • the images of horror absolute from Auschwitz in the second half

With its immense details and many scene changes Albert Speer takes three and a half hours. It's a long haul. However it fills my criteria for theatre which makes you analyse, reassess, question, debate, long after you have left the auditorium. How did this nation known for its tolerance in religion, love of music, literature and art turn into supporters of the most evil regime in history? How do we live with guilt?
Written by David Edgar after the book by Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth
Directed by Trevor Nunn
With: Alex Jennings, John Nolan, Simon Day, Patrick Baladi, Iain Mitchell, Benny Young, Charles Millham, Stephen Ballantyne, Patrick Marlowe, Adrian Penketh, Giles Smith, Chris Vance, Jonathan Cullen, Pip Donaghy, Martin Chamberlain, David Weston, Sylvester Morand, Roger Allam, Jessica Turner, Christine Kavanagh, William Gaunt, Imogen Slaughter, Cathryn Bradshaw, Tilly Blackwood, Sally Ann Burnett, Elizabeth Conboy, Chloe Angharad
Set Design: Ian MacNeil
Costume Design: Joan Wadge
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Sound Design: Chris Shutt
Video Design: Chris Laing
Movement Director: Kate Flatt
Music: Steven Edis
Running time: Three and a half hours with an interval
The Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to the end of the present booking period June 17th but likely to continue
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th May 2000 performance at the Lyttelton

ęCopyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp. 
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