“I loved you not because of your race, but in spite of it”
Adapted for the stage by Frank Dunlop, Address Unknown started life as an epistolary novella from 1938, written by Kathrine Kressman Taylor and charting the tragic deconstruction of a once-beloved friendship. Max and Martin are German business partners, the former a Jewish art dealer residing in San Francisco and the latter a Gentile who has now returned to Munich. But the year is 1932 and with National Socialism on the rise, the pair become increasingly estranged as their lives and philosophies diverge to the point of no return.
Over a period of a couple of years, the two men exchange letters and this is what makes the play. Two desks on raised platforms are occupied by two men, each reading aloud what they write and the other reacting, over and over until bitter recrimination has swallowed the last tiny bit of affection that was ever there. Steve Marmion injects as much intensity as possible into the production which is essentially static by nature, opting to ratchet up the atmosphere with the crackle of newsreel and radio adding texture and the lighting design increasingly exposing their differences even in terms of office furniture and wall decoration.
Simon Kunz and Jonathan Cullen give powerful performances as these two men. Kunz’s Max the more genial of the two from the off and thus allowed a richer, more convincing journey as his heart gradually calcifies in the face of the increasing radicalisation of his former colleague. And Cullen gets the more arresting, and undeniably difficult, job of the swift change of Martin into a Nazi party factotum, rhapsodising about the charisma of his new leader and in one chilling moment, offering him that unique salute.
But the production suffers from a lack of ambiguity about the nature of justice and the appropriateness of revenge – the final third taking an effective if somewhat telegraphed twist into the achingly tragic, but one lacking the richness of debate that the issue deserves. This is a world in which black and white are too clearly defined, not enough is made of the huge questions that ordinary Germans faced whilst living under such a regime, and so the stark ending becomes almost too straightforward, robbing a level of interest from a production which needs it. But Address Unknown remains compelling once one is attuned to its gentle rhythm and in an age of anonymous commenting and tweeting, a potent reminder of the power of words.