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A CurtainUp London Review
Director James Macdonald and translator Christopher Hampton have achieved a wonderful production of von Horváth's 1937 play Judgment Day. Set in a small town in Austria where there is a train crash with fatalities, Judgement Day is a study of the way in which the public's opinion can be manipulated and how fickle their loyalty is. Although Horváth did not live to see the full impact of the Holocaust much of this play seems to echo that terrible episode in German history under the Nazi rule.
The whole production has a brooding intensity, some of the quality of a film noir with the magnificent semi circular walled set of a railway station with express trains steaming through in sound, bright spotlights and special steam effects. The play is about guilt and responsibility, with the train crash the disaster that no-one wants to be responsible for. The young handsome and mild mannered station master Thomas Hudetz (Joseph Milsom) is married to a woman (Suzanne Burden) who is considerably older than he is and who is jealous because her husband is neglecting her. He receives attentions from the town flirt and innkeeper's spoilt daughter, Anna (Laura Donnelly). She distracts him from changing the railway signal as the express train goes through, when she kisses him unexpectedly and from where his wife could see them.
The station master's wife is so disliked that some of the townspeople also avoid her brother, the chemist Alfons (David Annen). At the enquiry into the accident Anna swears that she saw Hudetz change the signal and as he is exonerated the townsfolk gossips celebrate. Later the truth emerges and the local gossips turn on the station master, see Mrs Hudetz as an object of pity and patronise her brother's shop. There is a murder and Thomas Hudetz is wanted by the police but Alfons' offer to help him with a disguise is rejected. Alfons is this interesting character who tries to do the right thing, loyally sticking by those he respects.
The opening scene is at the station with people waiting for the train. The railways clock ticks away the minutes and a Bavarian gentleman waits in lederhosen and a typical Tyrolean hat while a local woman gossips maliciously about the people who live there. Later the injured stoker, a survivor of the crash tells us what happened on the train. Eighteen people are killed. The Public Prosecutor (Patrick Drury) investigates, talking to witnesses individually. "I've always followed orders,", says Hudetz avoiding both the admission of guilt and personal responsibility and wearing a railway uniform in dark blue which looks not unlike that of the SS. The second scene is set in the local hostelry with banners being put up for the party and the town band playing its welcome. There is the doting innkeeper (Tom Georgeson) blind to his daughter's faults. Alfon's chemist shop is full of period bottles of coloured liquids lit from behind like in a fairytale.
The set is lit dramatically and atmospherically by Neil Austin. We can feel the oppressively enclosed tedium and gossip of small town life. There are small details of fine direction contributing to the feel; the man looking up the barmaid's skirt as she hangs the bunting. The ensemble cast act with necessary restraint and Joseph Milson is especially interesting as the decent man struggling with lies or disgrace and ruin. He becomes delusional as he lies about the signal duty and later after committing a worse crime, claims he wasn't there.
James Macdonald's his superb production impresses with its dramatic design and all round gripping issues. As the chemist says, "It's all connected.". The audience will be examining those connections for some time from an era when we all still want to know how Fascism got its grip, accepted by so many. The parade of the dead from the train crash pleads for their moment in history to be heard.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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