FringeReview UK 2023
C. P. Taylor’s Good shows – supremely – how a liberal without developed conscience gets sucked in. It interrogates each of us, especially polite liberals who might say “I’m not political, I’m not interested in politics.” Politics is interested in us. And authoritarianism beats us into a dead-march. And unless we resist to a point of danger, we’ll fall in. A groundbreaking production of this timelessly urgent play.
Directed by Dominic Cook, Designed by Vicki Mortimer, Lighting Zoe Spurr, Sound Design Tom Gibbons, Wigs & Make-Up Campbell Young, Musical arrangement Will Stuart, Movement Direction Imogen Knight, Casting Amy Ball CDG
Encore performance May 4th
Are we in a prison cell? At the start of C. P. Taylor’s 1981 Good – revived by Dominic Cook at the Harold Pinter Theatre and now broadcast on NT Live – David Tennant hunches in confessional mode, in a cell-like set we’ll see throughout. But focused like this, it seems he’s explaining everything from a wrong-way telescope: as if awaiting trial after the war.
Vicki Mortimer’s bleak box of a set, concrete walls with a ledge, ensures everything hangs on the extraordinary pay-off at the end of this production. No reveals here, but is it too high a price to pay for this famed study of a ‘good’ man’s descent from a deeply civilised professor of literature to an SS officer overseeing death-camps?
What relief we get, what sudden reveals, is partly down to Zoe Spurr’s lighting, but Mortimer and sound designer Tom Gibbons set traps throughout.
All through Professor Halder’s plea for humane euthanasia being taken up by the Nazis is bounced off just two other actors multi-roling. Elliott Levey, primarily Halder’s only friend, Jewish Doctor Maurice Glückstein (a beautifully-wrought sadness, Maurice’s warmth tipped to fright, even self-loathing here), Levey flipping from warm, wry host to a senior Nazi official recruiting Halder’s euthanasia novel for party purposes. And Maurice from host to furtive bench-meetings desperately offering cheesecake as a bribe: “I don’t even like Epstein’s.”
Sharon Small’s even more various and this production in a beat has her change accent and bearing. Small flicks from Halder’s equally self-deprecating wife Helen, a musician more attuned to Telemann’s baroque forms and music theory than running a home (Halder cooks); to Halder’s incontinent, dementia-ridden blind mother who yet delivers acetylene truths in near-shrieks; to his new love, student Anne.
Unlike Helen who nudges Halder to accept her father’s invitation to join the Nazis, Anne rather loathes them. Helen’s increasing helplessness, Anne’s slow accommodation, both play on their characters too, in Small’s micro-beat alacrity. It’s a miracle of this production, and shouldn’t be forgotten.
Halder’s “Johnny” to his intimates, though Small like Levey takes on Nazi roles: Small ingratiating a major, a new ‘friend’ reminding Halder of his army life from 1916, and playing banned jazz with disguised record labels. “How can you not love them back?” Halder asks near the end of Act One, showing how camaraderie turns toxic. Indeed there’s a hint the major’s wife Liz wants Halder to impregnate her, the major being infertile.
It’s also a reminder of what we lose: “Johnny”. The sheer ordinariness of Taylor’s depiction, the bland intimacy, heightens the horror, shows just how a ‘civilised’ country slides imperceptibly from it could never happen here.
This is the Halder who keeps hearing music from 1933, reflects from the start the Nazis arrived long before then, trying desperately to dissociate the two phenomena as his own dissociation sets in. It builds to monumental hallucinations, imagining friends to waken a divided self.
Tennant, who seems born to play this role with a slant on chill, maps Halder’s self-justification in a series of facial angles, as if a mask is settling on them like a freezing gel. Each iteration, with Spurr’s lighting, fixes a tiny bit more. It’s masterly and redefines Halder.
He’s also superbly at home with Taylor’s technique of rapid asides with barely a twitch of the head, speaking directly to us a beat away from the conversation he’s having with Small or Levey.
From loathing anti-Semitism – finding in Anne at least an ally – he persuades Maurice, himself reluctant to leave Hamburg, that anti-Jewish laws are an election ploy. As each accommodation forces a further retreat Halder is pushed to justify euthanasia beyond his fiction and indeed geography, towards Silesia. In parallel Tennant maps with a quizzical expression Halder’s gradual dovetailing to Nazi-inflected language on Jewish ‘individualism’ versus community. – here of course the death-cult of Nazidom. The Talmud’s “If I am not for myself, then who is for me?” is casually flipped.
Taylor shrewdly refuses to chronologise anything beyond Kristalnacht. Germans had no map of mission-creep; nor should we. It’s a chilling warning of just how slowly a government’s insertion of a little ‘just saying’ targets ‘others’ to blame for unemployment, riots, rape even; tactily gives permissions to thugs Halder always separates from Nazi officials. Lessons learned, often by the wrong people.
Taylor’s Good shows – supremely – how a liberal without developed conscience gets sucked in. It interrogates each of us, especially polite liberals who might say “I’m not political, I’m not interested in politics.” Politics is interested in us. And authoritarianism beats us into a dead-march. And unless we resist to a point of danger, we’ll fall in.
The cast-list includes Jim Creighton, Rebecca Bainbridge, Izaak Cainer, Jamie Cameron, Edie Newman, Lizzie Schenk, George Todika. To see what Cook does with them is about as good – theatrically – as this production gets. Though Tennant has to deliver the unforgettable last line twice, an index, perhaps of accommodation. Nevertheless, this is a groundbreaking production of this timelessly urgent play.