Review: Berlin Hanover Express

Ireland’s Nazi shame exposed, but not explained

By John Nathan, March 12, 2009

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

Two quotes came to mind during Ian Kennedy Martin’s absorbing debut stage play about Irish wartime neutrality. The first is that line most often attributed to the Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

It is a lesson that haunts Paul Farnsworth’s fusty design of Ireland’s woodpanelled wartime legation in Berlin where Martin’s play is set. As do the rumours of a camp called Belsen.

The cosy association between Eamon de Valera’s Irish government and Adolf Hitler is summed up by the crossed flags of Ireland’s tricolour and Germany’s swastika, which are pinned over the legation door. It is about time we had a play about this shameful special relationship, and here it is.

It is 1942 and even though RAF bombers are beginning to hurt the German capital, the outcome of the war, victory for Germany, is not in doubt. Sean Campion’s pen-pusher, Mallin, and his constantly joking fellow diplomat O’Kane, played by Owen McDonnell with Tigger-like bonhomie, are Ireland’s two very different men in Berlin.

Their job is to sift through every telegram and communication for evidence that their recalled predecessor spied for the British. And keeping an eye on their progress is a fat, blonde Nazi called Kollvitz (Peter Moreton) who is just as interested in the legation’s cook and cleaner Christe (Isla Carter) — her Jewish cooking, her Jewish body, her Jewish identity — as he is hunting down Communists and Jews.

This subplot — climaxing in an uncomfortable but powerful scene during which the Nazi forces the “Jewess” to strip naked — dominates Martin’s play at the expense of less obvious themes.

There is, for instance, the gathering evidence of death camps. Again, those rumours, nagging at O’Kane’s conscience but ignored by Mallin. Do something or, as the Catholic O’Kane accuses his pope, do nothing. When that accusation came, I wondered if writer Martin, or director Michael Rudman had seen the JC’s recent exclusive revealing Pope Pius XII’s efforts to hide Jews during the war. They could have cut it, and O’Kane could still have had Irish complicity as a target. Keeping it in leaves the feeling that this play relies too much on off-the-shelf truisms — the silent pope, the vulnerable Jew, the bullying Nazi, the following of orders — rather than attempting to break new ground by examining the unseen (apart from a hanging portrait) de Valera’s motives for complying with the Nazis.

It is admittedly dodgy for a review to veer towards a play a writer did not write, instead of the one he did. But I found myself yearning for a work that imagined the conversations between the Irish Prime Minister and Germany’s Minister of Ireland, Doctor Eduard Hempel, with whom, according to Martin’s fascinating programme notes, de Valera had a close relationship. Were the Irish motivated by hatred for the British or by expediency?

Imagined conversations between real people is what made Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen (about Germany’s attempt to create the bomb) so fascinating. Imagined conversations could have had the same result here.

Instead, much of the stage-time is devoted to a double act between O’Kane, who likes the craic, and austere Mallin, who doesn’t. And Rudman’s production relies heavily on the chalk-and-cheese contrast to lend this otherwise serious work some humour.

There is a similar clash in Ronald Harwood’s drama Taking Sides (coming to London from Chichester in May) which also examines the moral choices made by free men under the Nazis. But that conflict — between a philistine American and a highly cultured German — reflects a clash of culture as well as personality, which is why the humour runs deep. In Martin’s play it feels worked in for light relief.

And there are comparisons also to be made with a recent, little-known play called Aristedes — the Outcast Hero, about the Portuguese ambassador who, unlike the senior Irish diplomat here, was guided by his conscience to save Jews, rather than by another neutral country’s orders to abandon them.

Still, few recent productions at the Hampstead have been as gripping as this. And Rudman gives a sense of period and place by separating the scenes with archive footage of Nazis: Nazis marching in Nuremberg; Nazis at the Brandenburg Gate; Nazis at the theatre laughing at a Nazi comedian.

It is a device that cleverly expands the play beyond the embassy walls in which Martin — a television writer best known for creating The Sweeney — locates all the action. The footage also gives a sense of how desperately the legation’s Jewish cook needed the sanctuary of that tiny patch of Ireland in Berlin.

Yet there is still a more forensic and possibly — though Martin does not pull his punches — more damning play to be written about Irish neutrality, one that gives reasons as clearly as that quote by Larry David on the wartime neutrality of another European country that could have done more for the Jews.

Says David: “Switzerland is a place where they get people to do their fighting for them so that they can ski and eat chocolate.” I’d still like to know Ireland’s excuse.

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Last updated: 11:32am, March 17 2009