Edinburgh Fringe 2016
In May 1941, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, bailed out over Scotland on a self-appointed mission of peace. Immediately imprisoned, he was later sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials on charges of conspiracy for war and crimes against peace. Then he was incarcerated for life in the infamous Spandau Prison, becoming by the mid-1960s the only prisoner. Michael Burrell’s one-man play imagines what he might say to an audience after 40 years in prison.
The play opens with Hess (Derek Crawford Munn) stumbling on in his pyjamas and coat. He seems a harmless old man in pain and why a 100 guards (drawn in turn from each of the allies) are still needed to ensure he doesn’t escape Spandau is a mystery.
Burrell’s play was first performed in 1978 but the writing still feels fresh and relevant. It spans Hess’s factual telling of that solo flight to Scotland, his expectation that he would be received as a hero, his imprisonment and the Nuremberg trials. But it also sweeps through his attempts to rationalise the actions of the Third Reich, his pride in being the deputy Fuhrer and his admiration for Hitler. And interspersed are moments of humanity as he talks of coping with prison, of his family, of how he spends the long days alone.
Within moments Crawford Munn has drawn the audience in as he addresses us directly; sometimes, as the play progresses, very directly. He challenges the cruelty of this long slow death sentence, asks why Britain (the only country to claim Greatness in its name he says) can countenance such revenge, what is the point? His performance is masterly; subtle and nuanced with moments of humour as well as outbursts showing us a man who is still immensely proud to have been part of the Third Reich, who believes that it would have defeated Russia and triumphed if he has been able to negotiate a peace with the west, who denies the holocaust – until he sees the film of the death camps shown at Nuremberg. The tiny details of everyday life in Spandau as imagined by Burrell are delightful – his choice of residence once he is the only prisoner, the newspapers he reads depending on which country is on guard duty, his acerbic observation that the guards are getting fat because they have nothing to do but eat…
However, beyond the drama the play raises questions about the nature of revenge and mercy to those we have triumphed over and the way the effects of those choices and actions ripple on down through the decades to affect future generations.
A must see for those interested in the history of the post war period as well as those concerned for our future.