“Justice is what serves the Germans best”
The title of Fear and Misery of the Third Reich might not seem like the most appealing at this time of the January blues but it is precisely this kind of complacency that Bertolt Brecht was cautioning against, and that Phil Willmott’s production for the Union Theatre highlights so effectively. Written by the playwright in 1938, this collection of inter-connected vignettes shows both remarkable insight into how prejudice and paranoia were manipulated to allow National Socialism to permeate all levels of German society, and an alarming prescience in how such behaviour might persist even today.
So in a series of scenes that jolt from farcical comedy to the darkest drama to pointed symbolism, Brecht takes us on a journey though the rise of jackbooted thuggery, overt anti-Semitism and bigoted political rhetoric. And the way in which people are browbeaten into submission – from the factory workers coerced into participating in fawning propaganda broadcasts to the parents anxious not to show their injured son too much concern after his release from a concentration camp lest they be reported for fraternising with the enemy – demonstrates the difficulties in trying to resist such a sea change, no matter how much one might recognise that it is wrong.
John Willett’s translation keeps the darkly poetic rhymes of the narrator who introduces each scene (beautifully and emotively spoken by Pauline Quirke Academy-trained Joe Dowling) and with Wilmott, introduces the possibility of narrative strands into the play. So the worker (Joshua Ruhle) who spoke out in front of the cameras is the one who returns home bloodied and bruised, and Willmott’s Husband and Clara Francis’ Wife become the heart of the story – first shown fearing that their Hitler Youth camp-indoctrinated son has turned them into the authorities, Husband then returning as a judge riven by doubts and Wife, who is Jewish, later making the agonised decision to flee without her family.
Willmott and Francis play these scenes beautifully – his judge caught in the impossibility of satisfying conflicting demands at a time of shifting loyalties and her middle class certainties shattered by the untrammelled intolerance she experiences from friends and family alike as bridge partners and sisters-in-law distance themselves. There’s also powerful work from Feliks Mathur’s fervent paramilitary, drunk on the power of the fear he inspires, and from Ben Kerfoot and Tom Williams as members of the Hitler Youth, not quite as far down the same path but still a chilling warning of disaffected youth gone astray.
Jack Weir’s controlled lighting and James Nicholson’s creepingly insistent sound design both effectively in the intimate space of the Union though Nick Corrall’s design aesthetic didn’t quite pay off for me, the professed desire for a mesh of period and contemporary just jarred in the smaller details like a bottle of San Miguel sitting next to a traditional kettle or a shiny copy of last month’s Vogue. Much more powerful are the unsettling masks, a powerful indictment of a society homogenising in hatred and as it is, timelessness shines through the fierce commitment of the company and this assured handling of Brecht’s text. As the Wife laments “what good is reason in a world like this”, thousands attend Donald Trump rallies, someone as delightful as Bake-Off winner Nadiya Hussain needs police protection and homophobia is shamelessly abetted as entertainment – miss Fear and Misery of the Third Reich and its salutary lessons at your peril.