Edinburgh Fringe 2014
‘Pip Utton takes us through a monologue of two parts. The first introduces Adolf Hitler in his final moments. The second demonstrates how the familiar gestures and opinions of Hitler exist beyond the man.’
It would be wrong to judge a book by its cover, but this performance did come with a bit of infamy. Adolf was watched with the mental caveat that people had walked out of some performances and were vocally offended before the end of it (performance is the keyword).
The first part of Pip Utton’s solo performance is conventional enough. Utton, in typically faux Hitler costume, gives a monologue in the latter’s bunker as death and defeat beckons. For anyone familiar with Utton you’ll know he’s a masterful character actor, with Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill to his credit.
It would be remiss not to mention his take on Churchill because, in conjunction with Adolf, the two serve in such tandem as to inform the audience both of the scope of the actor and of his attempt to glean and portray a real insight into the psyches of these men locked in their historic duel. The performances are not a duality; no one has to choose between either and think to see the other is contingent on understanding one or both.
Instead, it is simply a great curiously that Utton plays Churchill with aplomb, insight and skill and Hitler as a benign cliché. Perhaps it is because Hitler was purely evil and that there was little to no humanity to be found beyond the ideology and the moustache. Churchill, on the other hand, past the cigar and quotes, was a complicated, multifaceted human being to whom Utton devotes an hour discussing with little focus on his political or military views.
What Utton does with Adolf is to compensate in a way that he does best. He translates the same insight of Churchill into a portrayal of Hitler, which is entertaining but deliberately clichéd. He sets a trap for the audience, exposes us as arrogant for believing that we know the same old story about the man and reveals it slowly in an unnerving second act.
‘I stand at the door, and any man who opens the door, I will step in’ are his concluding words to history in the first act. And this is the lesson that becomes apparent. For the second act, Utton breaks character, taking off his wig and asking for a cigarette from the audience
The latter half is a gradual progression of easy comedy into increasingly darker and more insidious commentary from Utton on race, religion, immigration, jobs, patriotism – you name it. He deliberately shocks, eerily and effectively demonstrating how a comfortable, pint-swilling smooth-talking and engaging speaker can woe an audience all while injecting odious opinions. That is his lesson that Hitler might well be a parody now, but his views can live on, host to host without people realising it because it might seem innocuous or even relatable. That’s how he rose to power in the first place. He closes with ‘just let me in’, echoing his closing words as Hitler in the first act.
It is increasingly awkward, shocking to some who do not want to stomach it to the end and there is a point where you begin to think if this really is Utton, making up for finishing the show early. Instead, in the noblest tradition, he’s risking that verdict early on by sacrificing himself on the altar of his art, and he should be commended for it.
Lighting in the first half of the performance is critical: in his more emboldened moment, Utton appears before the huge draped swastika, singled out by a light that casts the perfect Hitler shadow onto it. It’s eerie and purposeful and Utton’s excellent script, composed from much of Mein Kempf, makes it terrifying.
For some, this performance will be shocking, more so because some do not like to be challenged. The extended time of around one hour and ten minutes gives plenty of latitude to surprise viewers, and Utton stops well before this and starts to engage with the audience as they try to anticipate what might come next.
Ultimately, the power of Utton’s performance is not in his physical resemblance or even the first act, but by his ability to restore meaning to what it truly means to bring a polemical piece of theatre to the Festival.