Judgment Day @ Almeida Theatre, London

cast list
Joseph Millson, Laura Donnelly, David Annen, Suzanne Burden, Patrick Drury, Ben Fox, Tom Georgeson, Daniel Hawksford, jack James, Jack Nightingale, Julie Riley, Andy Williams, Sarah Woodward

directed by
James Macdonald
A product of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which came to an end in 1918, dn von Horvth became one of the most incisive critics of the post-war rise of Nazism within Germany itself.

Though he was only 37 when he was killed by a branch falling from a tree in Paris in 1938, his plays and novels are marked by a disturbingly prescient feeling for the horrors ahead.

Far less well known in this country than his contemporary Bertolt Brecht, whose expressionist theatre revolves around didactic Marxist certainties, Horvths approach to politics was less directly confrontational and more concerned with murky moral ambiguities.
His powerfully satirical plays, with their subtle dissection of the dark side of human nature, especially his masterpiece Tales from the Vienna Woods, deserve to be staged here more often.

Horvth has long been championed by Christopher Hampton, who has not only adapted three of his plays before but also made him the main character of his own play Tales from Hollywood. Astonishingly, Hamptons splendid version of Judgment Day is the first major production of Horvths play since Stephen Daldry directed its British premiere 20 years ago on the fringe.

The drama focuses on the dire consequences of an unprecedented mistake by small-town stationmaster Thomas Hudetz, while being distracted by the local innkeepers daughter Anna kissing him, which leads to a train crash with 18 fatalities and many injured.

In the subsequent court case, she lies to save them both, and despite Hudetzs jealous wife reporting that she saw what happened, he is cleared and welcomed back to the town as a hero while Frau Hudetz becomes a pariah. However, the suppression of their guilty secret which binds them together has a corroding impact on Hudetz and Anna, leading to further fateful actions with a wider impact on the community itself.

Hampton has brilliantly conveyed Horvths concern with moral responsibility (both individual and collective), where refusal to accept ones own share of guilt and attempts to blame other people leads to social disaster. Covering up misdemeanours creates deep moral corruption which leads to further crimes, while pretending that we are innocent and that the potential for evil is just inside other people is a denial of our common humanity.

Although nothing is made explicit, it is clear that the unnamed town is representative of something very rotten in the state of Germany. The uniformed Hudetz excusing any personal accountability by saying Ive always followed orders and done my duty and the local people looking for scapegoats while following herd instinct have a huge historical resonance. When Judgment Day was first staged in 1937 the Nazi train was already hurtling along at full speed and catastrophe was only just down the line.

Director James Macdonald has created a tremendous ensemble production with a strong community feel, in which the mundane everyday routine of waiting on a station platform gives way to extraordinary tragedy, while gossip becomes slander and voyeurs turn into a lynch-mob. Miriam Buethers ingeniously flexible design features a moving platform which is used for the different town locations of train station, inn, pharmacy and railway viaduct, while also suggesting shifting perspectives of the people involved. The passing trains are atmospherically evoked by steam, as well as the lighting of Neil Austin and sound of Christopher Shutt, so that we almost feel the locomotive blast ourselves.

Leading a strong cast, Joseph Millson excels as the normally reliable Hudetz who goes seriously off the rails: at first polite and personable, his repressed guilt drives him to the edge of sanity, as he hopes for salvation from a higher judgment. Laura Donnelly impresses as the sensually flirtatious Anna, whose initial mischief leads to perjury, blackmail and worse. Suzanne Burdens Frau Hudetz is an insecure, vindictive woman, whose insufferable treatment of her younger husband is arguably the root cause of the tragedy. And David Annen is her brother Alfons, the only one who becomes aware of the moral complexities as he realizes that “Its all connected”.

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