Edinburgh Fringe 2011
In an extremely intimate space Paul Webster breathes life into the Fuhrer in an astonishing not-to-be-missed performance, although the format of the play is a little dated.
How to do Hitler? Why do Hitler is more easy – he’s the biggest bogeyman in history, the acme of evil, and actors love doing evil. But how can you do him on stage? About ten years ago I thought of doing him myself. I’d done much of the research, studying his ‘Table Talk‘ – the volumes of Hitler’s after dinner ramblings recorded by his secretary which give an unguarded insight into his thinking. (There were few real surprises – he had already told the world what he was about in Mein Kampf). I even had a title for my show – Hitler Christ – and I had just hit upon the brilliant dramatic device needed to turn it into a solo show, when Pip Utton exploded onto the Edinburgh map with Adolf, and I thought that was that for a solo show about Hitler on the Fringe. He’s been done – and definitively too.
And then I heard he’d been done again. That there was a new solo Hitler on the block.
In the intervening years from Pip’s first outing as Adolf to Paul Webster’s appearance in Hitler Alone, the best film portrayal of Hitler had been made and spawned a thousand youtube parodies. So when Webster bursts into the room, venting his fury at his perceived betrayal by his cowardly generals, it is impossible not to think of Bruno Ganz in Downfall (Der Untergang) railing at Keitel, Jodl, Krebs and Buchdorf. Which is actually a complimentary comparison – for Ganz has a stunning presence on screen, and in the flesh, barely three feet away from me, Webster is exuding the same hunched manic energy and the puzzling presence of man who was once overpowering but is now in terminal decline.
But whereas Ganz could have breaks on the film set in between takes, Webster must sustain his performance for more than an hour, and that he does so is a remarkable achievement. He prowls, he rails, he falls to the floor and pounds it with his fists, he slumps into his chair, cracks a joke or two at Churchill’s expense, and then he’s on his feet again in full-on rant mode. Webster’s vocal range too is well up to the task, as he effortlessly shifts through the gears from self-pitying mumble to the dynamic dramatic tirades that cowed a nation. I did detect a curious hint of Welshness in Webster’s frequently rolled Rs, and I was amused at the thought that this was a transposition of Hitler’s provincial sounding Austrian accent (to German ears) into an Anglophone context, but I suspect it was more a product of old school thespianism. It is a habit I too have picked up from Laurence Olivier via Steven Berkoff.
Webster’s performance would be remarkable enough if he were a man closer in age to that of his subject. But Hitler was a mere 56 when he blew his brains out in a Berlin bunker (although the ravages of Alzheimer’s and years of barbiturate abuse made him seem much older). Webster admits to being born in the year of appeasement, 1938, so he’s now… well, work it out. At three months younger than Berkoff, Paul Webster too belongs to the youngest echelon of the generation of actors who lived through the Second World War, and sometimes one can only watch them with a sense of awe.
Perhaps it is also not surprising then, that Webster’s script is a little old fashioned. There is a particular sub-genre of the one man play, which was prevalent in the last two decades of the last century and is still alive and well, and into which this play falls squarely if not perfectly: the bio-mono-drama, usually titled ‘I, Someone‘ in which the famous Someone has an hour or so to live and they have decided to spend it telling their life’s story to or through the fourth wall. Sometimes the Someone tells their story more or less chronologically, and sometimes they don’t. In ‘Alone‘, Hitler doesn’t. Sometimes there is a wrapping device at the start and at the end to justify the Someone seeing and addressing this modern audience directly, and sometimes there isn’t. In ‘Hitler Alone‘ there isn’t. Sometimes the chronology is fragmented but the play is structured around the development of a theme. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was the case in Hitler Alone. It appeared to me to resemble the rambling mind of its subject, roaming from one subject to another hate object in a more or less freely associative stream. Towards the end there was something of a concluding idea of Hitler being proud of having been a great actor in his day, and Webster stands erect for the first time to give us a glimpse of the man at the peak of his oratorical power, but it was not nearly as conclusive and impressive an ending as a bullet in the brain. I rather expected to hear a shot after he exited the room, but instead, having removed his black wig, a sprightly upstanding white-haired man swiftly re-entered and took his bow.
Allocating stars to this show feels like an anachronistic slur. When I started coming to the fringe in the 1980s only the least serious publications were vulgar enough to consider a star rating system belonged to serious critical coverage of the fringe. Now even Lyn Gardner does it in The Guardian. But star this I must, or my editor will tell me off.
Hitler Alone certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It is not offensive or particularly controversial. There is no wire-walking semi-glorification of the subject. Nor is there any dramatic twisting of the knife in the audience’s back as in Utton’s Adolf. But if you are into history and great acting in an extremely intimate space and were thinking this might be worth a visit I can recommend this show highly. I am tempted to give it 5 stars for the sheer inspirational value of witnessing the first two minutes of Paul Webster’s performance and his ability to sustain our attention for seventy three more. But due to my reservations about the datedness of the play’s format, and a sense that for all his virtuosity in performance, Webster’s reading of Hitler doesn’t really deliver any startling new insight into his subject or into our selves, it has to be 4 stars, and yet a not-to-be-missed experience.