First published in The Times, Saturday August 27 2016
It is now 75 years since Rudolf Hess bailed out of his Messerschmitt over Scotland, having set out on a solo mission to negotiate peace with the British in the midst of the World War II. It was to be the start of a long period of incarceration for the one-time deputy führer in Hitler’s Third Reich. After the Nuremberg trials Hess escaped the death penalty but went on to spend the rest of his long life incarcerated at Berlin’s Spandau prison.
This new production of Michael Burrell’s award-winning monologue, revived to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tribunal, offers a compelling, sometimes chilling, insight into the now aged Hess’s fragmenting memories of the war and the persecution of the Jews, his rationalisation of his own misdeeds and his despair at the endless death in life of his imprisonment.
As played by Derek Crawford Munn, who brilliantly captures the nuances of Burrell’s script, Hess at first glance cuts a pathetic figure in pyjamas and dressing gown, his body wracked by the agonies of a perforated ulcer. His physical frailty belies his keen wit and a certain self-awareness: he is conscious of his failings, undone by loneliness and imprisonment and lucid about current European politics and the hypocrisies of Western powers.
At times there is contrition within these reflections, but then, quite suddenly, there will come change, as though a switch has been thrown and he indulges in stretches of self-justification that allow brief glimpses into the worryingly mundane circumstances and mind-set that can rationalise evil.
Burrell’s wordy play is at times heavy going, and little attempt is made in Munn’s simply staged production to vary the pace a little, therefore leavening the dense, verbose material. Following every line of Hess’s account is at times hard graft. There are plenty of compensations in the actor’s performance, however. He convinces utterly as the ageing bogeyman, whose horizons have shrunk immeasurably, and who is broken in body if not yet entirely in spirit.