Judgment Day is a play by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, which has been translated here at the Almeida theatre by Christoper Hampton. One of the first commissions after Michael Attenborough’s arrival as Artistic Director, Hampton has long been a champion of this writer and this is the first full production of this play in this country. Von Horváth wrote much of his anti-Nazi work in Germany in the 1930s, but opted to remain in the country to study the encroaching rise of Nazism, instead of fleeing like many of his compatriots such as Brecht.
It’s the story of Hudetz, a stationmaster of a small village who, distracted one evening by a popular local girl eager for a kiss, fails to make the necessary signal to a passing train causing a devastating fatal crash. The girl Anna then perjures herself to defend Hudetz as he seeks to escape justice, despite his unhappy wife also witnessing the events. We then see the effects of overwhelming grief on this pair as they struggle to carry on with their lives, exacerbated by the ever-changing moods of the townspeople, whose vicious, bigoted anger seems to be refocused with every new piece of gossip that comes their way.
As ever at the Almeida, the acting is uniformly superb. Joseph Millson’s stationmaster perfectly captures the essence of this broken man whose decisions lead him further and further into tragic denial, all-the-while clinging to his duty as a mantra of self-protection. Laura Donnelly delivers an incredibly assured performance as the girl whose actions set the whole play in motion, blending sensuality with fragility and then descending rapidly into a neurotic self-flagellating remorse as her guilt theatens to overwhelm her. However, all of the supporting players do fine work as the beauty of von Horváth’s characters is that they are all fully realised, no matter how minor, each wrestling with their own complicity in events and the decisions they have to make. And the use of supernumaries in several scenes gave a real authenticity to the feelings of ‘mob justice’ as the prevailing antagonisms of the small community shifted from character to character throughout the play.
Every element of this production is elegantly judged (pardon the pun). The staging is quite ingenious: seemingly based on a train turntable, the set twists and turns to present the action from different sides and perspectives and has great flexibility in representing the different locations, all the while evoking the all-important railway. Be warned though, anyone with a cough should probably avoid the first few rows as there is much effective use of dry ice as the trains pass through the station. The lighting was also particularly evocative, I loved the device of spotlighting one character at the end of each scene which served the dual purpose of distracting from the scene changes but also providing deeper moments probing into the psyches of these people.
Given the socio-political sphere in which Horváth wrote, it is easy just to see this play as a damning indictment of the German small-town mentality that allowed National Socialism to seize the country, but by not making explicit reference to the Nazis and reminding us that anyone and everyone can abdicate responsibility for their actions when herd mentality sets in, Judgment Day takes on a chilling universality.