- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Lindsay Oldham
To dimmed lighting and an intimidating tenor of chanting, the five cast members trickle onstage and kneel before us, arms raised, frozen. A gun shoots. They all collapse.
This is the welcome we receive to their claustrophobic underground production, which, played out beneath the arched ceiling of the Frewin Undercroft, makes me feel slightly as though we are in a bomb shelter – somewhat eerily, considering the subject matter.
Fear and Misery in the Third Reich is a shameless testimony against the Nazis. Rather than any definite plot, it is a turntable of scenes, as though we are going down in a lift and opening its doors onto the action at each level. In this performance we are moved through eight of these scenes, each one saturating the small room with a different quality of revulsion – and all this squeezed through the binoculars of decades. I wonder how the Germans first reacted to the play when Brecht wrote it in 1938.
The scenes have a disturbingly everyday feel to them, as though we are looking at lives through a distorting prism. Where there should be two scientists peacefully at work we see them hushed and harried as they pour illegally over Einstein’s equations, scribbling his name out in frustration when overheard as they scribbled out his whole branch of society. In another scene, a close-knit family becomes a breaking one, the infestation of the Hitler Youth withering their relationships into distrust and betrayal, the threat of their own flesh and blood testifying against them in the courtroom. Here the actors have it just right, slipping unevenly between accelerating, panicky outbursts and a knife-edge of suspense, making us really believe them and feel compassion.
These appeals to our pity, though, are entirely different from the more brutal scenes, which demand of us immediate disgust. Adam Scott Taylor, playing a prisoner being whipped, writhes in pain so believably that you cannot help flinching. It is quite horrifying, the scene awful and almost insane – but true – as he scratches the floor in his agony, small and sprawled across the stage and so close to you as to make you feel guilty, as if it were you yourself brandishing the whip.
This is a dark play. One uncomfortable story follows another, overseen and oppressed by the ushers in their SA uniforms, and there is no redeeming message other than the weedy fact that this is now in the past. It is like poking your head into many people’s houses and burdening yourself with their problems without being able to solve any. But its reality, its sneaky layer-by-layer building of the heavy atmosphere and its convincing cast make it one of those disturbing plays that you really should go and see. It is good to be unsettled every now and then.