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Manchester theatre reviews

Good by C P Taylor

GOOD by C P Taylor

Performed at Royal Exchange Theatre

Directed by Polly Findlay and designed by James Cotterill

Reviewed by Jane Turner October 2011

 

It’s a strange mixed-up fantasy, but if you fancy seeing Hitler in plus-fours and arrive at the gates of Auschwitz in a flash of light as the curtain falls feeling tense, disorientated, bewildered and yet somehow gripped, “Good” might be just right for you. I may have had a sense of humour biopsy but I think it would be “good” if history was portrayed more accurately.

 

I found it a little difficult to settle in my seat; I was un-comfortable, not because of the fine upholstery, but bothered by the four letter-word of the title – Good. A bit subjective to begin with and even more so when tackling the consequences of German Fascism. Good/evil, black/white? Most of us know that things are never that clear cut or straightforward. Who and what is good or evil, and who decides is the rather complex question taken up by CP Taylor, the author of this story.

 

This play – part of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s new Autumn/Winter Season, was originally written in 1981 and commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has since been acknowledged as a modern classic. It is a rather sober story about a somewhat serious matter – eugenics, and as with most serious tales, there is a moral message at its heart, which is “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (a quote attributed to Edmund Burke).

 

It is a directorial challenge for Polly Findlay as although the subject matter is serious, the play itself is actually a musical comedy, and a comedy of a type that I personally didn’t laugh at – not once. Nevertheless, she manages to bring a certain lightness to a dark subject and eases the audience in to the bleakness of the second half by clever use of set pieces, interspersed with musical interludes perfectly performed by a small but talented cast. The stage is sparsely set, but with creative use of light and sound it is brought into character, one minute gloomy and threatening, the next full of sparkle and get-up-and-go.

 

Adrian Rawlins as John Halder. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.Representing the “good” (initially anyway) is the character of Professor John Halder (the personification of the German people played by Adrian Rawlins). The Professor is depicted as a “good” and decent man struggling with more than a fair share of domestic chaos - an elderly mother with senile dementia, a neurotic wife, demanding children, a mistress, the Nazi propaganda machine and the increasing tendency to hear beautiful music in unexpected places offering him momentary release from his day-to-day issues. Rawlins gives a brilliant performance; totally absorbed and giving the impression of a man on the edge of a precipice and liable to lose his grip at any time. He had so much to say, it must have taken him an age to learn his lines!

 

He was also on stage from curtain-up-to-down, and pacing the floor constantly must have walked several miles. One minute ranting at himself and the music in his head, next negotiating with the Nazis and all the while batting away the millions of missiles coming at him from his domestic turmoil. It all felt like so much hard work, which unfortunately he conveyed so well that I was over-wrought and tense for the whole performance, and just plain exhausted by the end of it. I found nothing to like in this character, a man complicit in atrocity who betrays his Jewish friends a little too easily – yes he has tumultuous inner dialogue, is depressed and nervy, and is anxious about his decisions, but he makes them just the same.

 

Professor Halder decides to explore his personal circumstances by theorising in a novel that advocates compassionate euthanasia. Unexpectedly, he finds the views he expresses getting support from the Nazi Government and used in propaganda to support their eugenic policies. I tried to get with the satire, but I was obviously not cut out for such a strange spoof as this, and instead of a laugh (and there were one or two from some of the audience) I could only frown. My brow was further furrowed when the Nazis came on set, dressed head to foot in a uniform daubed with swastikas; it was surreal when they spoke, as if they had been dubbed. Most sounded like they’d just stepped off the green lawns of Eton or as in one case like a chirpy East End barrow boy, but instead of shouting “get yer ‘taters ‘ere” he said “’Itler gorrus barck arr owun cantry” (I’m rubbish at accents, that’s meant to be an East-ender).

 

Halders' life takes a strange turn when the Government uses the content of his novel to lend support to their belief that some humans are unworthy of life and the party’s policy of euthanasia and sterilisation for the mentally ill, homosexuals and others they considered to be degenerate. As history has shown, these policies led to mutilation, mass murder and the extermination of whole sections of society considered “non-German” or “alien”. His arguments are used and twisted to suit their actions, and Halder finds himself increasingly unable to disagree with their justifications for what is merciless massacre when presented as merciful release. He finds himself obliged to join the Nazi party in order to further his career, which allows him a privileged existence, and in the process becomes associated with their disturbing policies. He goes from being the “good” of the plays title to the symbol of “evil”, the whole metamorphosis visually demonstrated as he changes his crumpled old brown suit for the full Nazi uniform.

 

With Beth Park as Anne. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.The play is an exploration of how in specific historical circumstances personal morality can become influenced, twisted and drawn towards what is described as evil. The points made are hardly original and have been made before - how could something so obviously terrible happen, how could normal, civilized, so-called “good” German people have allowed this to happen?

 

Sounds interesting? Well yes it should have been, but I found this production rather bizarre and unsettling, its weakness being that it depicted the whole terrible tale of the atrocities of German Fascism from the point of view and experience of a neurotic individual having a nervous breakdown and in the form of a musical comedy; you have to have your powers of imagination mangled, minced and transported to outer Siberia to really appreciate it; I can daydream with the best of them usually, but my inner instrument just wasn’t playing this time.

 

The over-emphasis on individual choice as a scapegoat for the atrocities of the Nazis jarred, letting off the weakness of the ruling class, as did the absence of any notion of the importance of the political, economic and social context in which this horror occurred. Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s was gripped by class war, civil war, world war, revolution, general strikes, and raging street battles between the left and right. It was also a time of Nazi terroristic dictatorship, when fear and oppression were widespread and cruelty and humiliation the norm. Most ordinary people were terrified, wracked mentally and abused physically by the Nazi state and lived in an isolated and solitary condition where basic moral codes had collapsed. The Third Reich was a chaotic and terrifying place to live.

 

It was difficult to convey this on a small round stage full of neurotic and wacky characters, with occasional bursts of jazz, classical and oompah music. There were one or two references to events outside their individual lives such as “the night of broken glass”, a Jewish pogrom, and to beatings and persecutions, but somehow it just didn’t synchronise.

 

It’s a strange mixed-up fantasy, but if you fancy seeing Hitler in plus-fours and arrive at the gates of Auschwitz in a flash of light as the curtain falls feeling tense, disorientated, bewildered and yet somehow gripped, “Good” might be just right for you. I may have had a sense of humour biopsy but I think it would be “good” if history is portrayed more accurately.

 
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