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The world should learn. Conspiracy: the Wannsee Conference 1942.

by on 4 October 2016


by Loring Mandel


Hampton Hill Theatre until 8th October

Review by Thomas Forsythe

In his famous Blut und Eisen speech, Otto von Bismark said “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.”   In Conspiracy we see speeches quashed and majority decisions overturned in a manner whose ruthlessness stepped up the portent of Bismark’s adage. The great question of 20th January 1942 considered at the Wannsee Conference resulted in the “final solution” that was to come to be known as the holocaust.

In a piece of verbatim theatre, Loring Mandel’s play dissects the thoughts and motives and actions of the group of top Nazi officials, SS officers and civil servants of the Third Reich, who met at a luxury mansion on the shores of Lake Wann, on the outskirts of Berlin that fateful day.

OHADS has built up reputations for handling difficult pieces and for managing to acquire early rights on new works. Loring Mandel originally wrote Conspiracy as a film for American cable television and OHADS has again achieved a first: the UK stage premiere.  However, it has also had to handle a very difficult work for stage. Mandel himself conceded that “it might prove unworkable because of its lack of kinetics”. So the first difficulty is how to animate what is in essence a play about a committee meeting (in spite of the world-shaking import of the agenda).  The second difficulty is how to differentiate the characters, which, apart from the minor roles, comprise sixteen men all in early middle-age.

In the event, the OHADS company, under the skilful direction of Fiona Smith, brilliantly overcame both obstacles.  The set comprised an enormous semi-circular table (surely in itself a feat of construction) occupying the whole stage. In any serious approach to stagecraft, tables are a no-no, forming a barrier to the audience; but here the table was used to great advantage, as a sounding board (both figuratively and literally) of the emotions of the protagonists. The result was that the play avoiding any hint of being static: Mandel’s kinetics were not lacking. The differentiation of the characters was a master-class in acting. Moreover, this came both from the ensemble as a whole and from fine and clearly well-studied acting from all the cast.

This said, the play was slow to get underway, largely lumbering under the scene setting at the opening. The cast were not helped by the contrived writing in introducing the characters, a hard task with sixteen men who initially seemed identical. The house lights were kept on for a while to enable the audience to cross-reference the list in the programme, but this made for an uncomfortable start for the actors.

Then, the chilling line from SS General Heydrich, the authoritarian chairman of the meeting: “We have a storage problem with these Jews”. From this point on, the action moved strongly along with perfect pace. The tension was built with increasing menace as the few dissenting voices were silenced one by one and the inevitable conclusion was reached.

From sixteen remarkable performances, four were particularly memorable. Luke Daxon played SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, the dark power behind Heyrich’s throne, who in 1960 was controversially abducted from Argentina by Mossad secret agents and hanged. In Daxon’s portrayal we saw Eichmann’s thin veneer of urbanity over a core of evil. Tom Nunan inhabited the part of Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, a fastidious lawyer, arguing the legal niceties with the energetic passion of a trained barrister. Stephen Boyd’s Dr. Wilhelm Kritzinger, of the Reich Chancellery, one of the most outspoken dissenters, showed the brittle and impatient anxiety of a man struggling to get his points listened to. Peter Hill’s Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s action-man, who would have been his deputy, were he not assassinated by the Czech resistance some four months later, was a case study of the well-researched performance that has become Hill’s hallmark.  We felt the cool calculating air of intimidation that surrounded this clever and otherwise cultured man, as, one by one, he subtly coerced Stuckart, Kritzinger, and the other dissenters with obtuse threats quietly hinted at from under their heavy veil of civility.

Our actors may have given us sixteen well-drawn characters, but they were little helped by the costume department. All were dressed in lounge suits and plain ties. Where were the SS uniforms that would have helped the audience (and the actors) with the who’s who? Even the tie colours didn’t seem to hint at which “club” they represented. And wouldn’t they, all to a man, have had super-shined shoes (probably courtesy of various hapless batmen)?   Or does it tell us that the SS were not extraordinary? A sobering thought that they could be everyman.

The lighting started promisingly with cyclorama projections of authentic period views of the mansion by the Wannsee, but these only ran during the audience assembly, to be lost as a dark grey backdrop (occasionally relieved by Microsoft paraphernalia).    A continuing projection of the idyllic surroundings at Wannsee might have provided a stark contrast with the dialogue of the play.

However, the sound made this contrast. The interpolated music was largely Schubert at his most melodic. The inspiration was the script where Heydrich, have completed his process of coercion, which he knew would lead to the brutal deaths of millions, turns on the gramophone and plays Schubert’s sublime String Quintet in C Major, remarking, “The adagio will tear your heart out”. If this be a insight into the soul of this man, what about Eichmann’s description of the piece at the end of the play, “sentimental Viennese shit!”.

Music suffused this performance and one of the highlights of the play was the entr’acte singing of Karen Fodor. Tall and statuesque, dressed all in black, the pale front lighting giving her a cadaverous appearance, this was a beautiful foil to the horrors of the conversations that make up the play.  She sang a capella, firstly a Yiddish folk song, Tumbalalaika, “A love can burn and never end: a heart can yearn, cry without tears” and then, to a melody by Maurice Ravel, a prayer in Aramaic, “ … beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise and comfort”. Her voice was mesmerizingly resonant and the whole totally atmospheric.

What does this play tell us? What do we learn?  It could be said that the holocaust, as a subject of screen and stage has been overworked, but this is only true if we forget that it is not an isolated freak of history.  It is mankind’s continuing inheritance of evil.  The holocaust should remind us of later atrocities, the Stalin genocides of 11 million in the USSR, 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971, 3 million in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in the 1990’s, Kurdistan and Bosnia.  Look back at Conspiracy , replace Nazi with ISIS, replace Jews (and Slavs and Gypsies) with Christians (and Yazidis and Shias) and you have the world today.

In the name of humanity, in the name of God (the one same God of Jews and Christians and Muslims), in the name of the sense of compassion of those without a named faith, the world should learn. If OHADS’ powerful production of Conspiracy goes even a minuscule way towards that learning, it would succeed.  I believe it did.

 Thomas Forsythe

Oct 2016


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