First published in The Times, Tuesday May 26 2015
Of all the ways that theatre, film and literature have found to deal with the Holocaust, Gitta Sereny’s book Into That Darkness has to be one of the most powerful, with its unyielding focus on one man’s guilt and complicity. First published in 1974, it is a rigorous distillation of 60 hours of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of the extermination camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, under whose responsibility about 900,000 prisoners lost their lives.
This adaptation – written by Robert David MacDonald, the former artistic director of the Citizens Theatre, and first staged in 1994 under the title In Quest of Conscience – recreates Sereny’s encounters with Stangl. Revived to mark the 70th anniversaries of both the end of the Second World War and the formation of the Citizens, Gareth Nicholls’s production reflects the difficulties inherent in attempting to get to grips with the atrocities of the death camps. By locating the action behind a perspex wall, Nicholls acknowledges the oft-voiced fear that western audiences have become distanced from the Holocaust, inured to its horrors, unable to square the scale of the genocide with the relative banality of contemporary life.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Ironically, in Sereny’s book and MacDonald’s play, it is this very banality that makes Stangl’s role so appalling. In the opening sequence, in effect a sustained monologue, Stangl (a commanding performance by Cliff Burnett) switches between grotesque self-pity and cool, lucid reminiscences of his formative childhood experiences in Austria, early Nazi affiliations and initiation into Hitler’s extermination programme. This loving husband and father’s trite conscience-assuaging avowal that he was simply “doing his duty” is crystallised in telling anecdotal details. When asked by Sereny (played by Blythe Duff) why he wore a flamboyant white riding outfit to inspect the camps under his jurisdiction, he merely shrugs: “It was hot.”
While Nicholls does a fine job of pacing Stangl’s lengthy testimony, there are times, particularly during the first act, when the claustrophobic set-up and relentless, cumulative revelations leave one longing for a little more variety in the telling. The play really comes into its own in the second half, however, as Stangl’s raging internal conflict increasingly surfaces and we begin to see the cracks appearing in Sereny’s composure.
The ensemble, which also includes Molly Innes as Stangl’s equally conflicted wife and Ali Craig in minor roles, is highly skilled and committed, with Duff in particular adding yet another beautifully textured portrait to her gallery of multifaceted women.
Box office: 0141 429 0022, to May 30. citz.co.uk