Sean Campion, Isla Carter, Owen McDonnell, Peter Moreton
Hampstead Theatre continues its 50th anniversary season with a new play by veteran television writer Ian Kennedy Martin about Irish neutrality in the Second World War.
The play is set in Berlin in 1942, in the office of the Irish legation.
Two men, Malin and O’Kane, sit on opposite desks. One is middle aged, neat, punctual and above all dutiful; while the other is younger, honey-tongued and more casual in his manners, and fond of a tipple from the whisky bottle in his draw not to mention a flutter on the gee-gees.
There is an Odd Couple quality to their relationship, to their constant bickering. They dislike each other, are indeed morally opposed to the other’s very way of being, and yet are trapped together, facing each other over matching type-writers, stuck on the same administrative hamster’s wheel they are paper pushers, wielders of rubber stamps.
This sub-Beckettian dynamic is disrupted by Christe, their German-Polish cook. She is being pursued and tormented by the bullish Kollvitz, a sturdy German officer who has unearthed secrets in her past. It turns out she is of Jewish descent, though has kept this fact concealed from her employers, and her brother has been accused of political dissent. Kollvitz clearly knows all he needs to know from the very beginning but as Christe is an attractive young woman, he takes his time, toying with her, enjoying the process of dragging the information out of her.
At the heart of the play there are some fascinating questions about courage and cowardice, about silence and complicity, about when at what point, regardless of political neutrality it becomes necessary, as a human being, to open one’s mouth and say This is too much, I will not stand by and let this continue. Both Malin and O’Kane have an awareness of what is happening in Germany, of what is happening in the camps, but they are torn between duty – the need to do their job – and their own moral outrage. Then O’Kane is taken by Kollvitz on a tour of Bergen-Belsen and returns shaken and disturbed.
Michael Rudman’s production is solid if rather plodding, its scenes broken up with black and white archive footage projected onto a screen that is lowered in front of the stage.
Things are elevated somewhat by the convincing performances of both Sean Campion and Owen McDonnell as Malin and O’Kane; they successfully build up a plausible yet complex rapport.
The weak link is Isla Carter as Christe though this is as much to do with the character as written as with her performance. During a scene in which she is blackmailed by Kollvitz, she is forced to expose herself literally but she moves from trembling, cowering terror to something approaching seduction in a matter of seconds. The scene feels clunky and contrived and her very presence in the play feels like a convenient hook on which to hang a moral argument than an attempt to create a character about whose plight one could care about. Peter Moreton meanwhile, as Kollvitz, is lumbered with a role that is simply stereotypical.
The pacing is also very sluggish and the debate, though it engages intellectually, never fully takes off dramatically. The play potters along, successfully in its attempts to make its audience think, but ultimately promising far more than it ever delivers.