As the first of the former Yugoslavian war crimes trials commences in The Netherlands, the Tricycle's artistic director Nicolas Kent reunites with Guardian writer Richard Norton-Taylor (who in 1994 edited the proceedings of the Scott Inquiry for Kent to stage) for this distillation of the 1945-46 trials at Nuremberg of leading Nazis. Where the Scott production, Half The Picture, was an implicit condemnation of a certain political mentality, Nuremberg inevitably raises more fundamental moral questions, the more so as the trial extracts have been linked to a number of Responses, playlets addressing the issues around more recent atrocities in Haiti, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. (On Mondays to Thursdays, one of the trio is staged; on Fridays and Saturdays, all three.)
The three Responses suffer from the common problem that they necessarily locate themselves on the periphery of monstrous events and so, contrary to the basic precept of drama, they must tell rather than show. Although Femi Osofisan constructs an individual confrontation between a Hutu and a Tutsi in Rwanda, and Goran Stefanovski leavens his Ex-Yu with cynical black humour, the scenes bring little new either to the big issues or the human picture within them. Awful as it is to admit, they even induce a kind of morality fatigue. An audience grown habituated to living with what German philosopher Karl Jaspers (in the compendious programme notes) calls "metaphysical guilt" will not have that feeling sharpened any more by the Responses.
It seemed at first that the effect of presenting Nuremberg after these moral updates would be less a case of closing the stable door after the horse has been shot than of reminiscing about the days when the stable even had a door. However, Norton-Taylor's editing and Kent's staging have created a piece which is both dramatic and thought-provoking. The trials are staged complete with stenographers and translators, with individuals unobtrusively entering and leaving Saul Radomsky's set as they would over a prolonged set of hearings; Kent has woven a detailed background fabric which finely complements the adversarial exchanges between prosecutors and defendants.
Norton-Taylor has selected four of the 22 accused: Hermann Goering (Michael Cochrane), against whose contemptuous self-confidence the grandstanding bluster of American prosecutor Jackson founders; Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (William Hoyland), the epitome of a noble Prussian general whose code of obedience proves inadequate when enlisted in the service of such evil; the Nazi party philosopher Alfred Rosenberg (Jeremy Clyde), whose desiccated intellectualism springs into life in defence of his odious theories; and Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (Michael Culver), who seems seized by a compulsion to confess and atone for his part in the Nazi machinery. In addition, the testimony is included of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, played by a wonderfully affectless Thomas Wheatley, whose dispassionate account of his role in dispatching a million and a half souls would, the defence counsel hoped, lessen the defendants' offences in comparison.
Norton-Taylor also falls prey to the trap of recounting at length, by his decision to let British chief prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross recite an account of a mass shooting in the Ukraine. However, it is an inspired move to close not with the verdicts and sentencing (which are simply projected onto a screen), but with Speer's final personal statement to the tribunal – the chillingly prophetic observation that a Hitler could succeed in propagating his schemes because of technological developments such as telecommunications and broadcast media, ending with the words, "May God protect Germany and the culture of the West." As the Responses make clear, He did not.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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