“War…there’s been wars since the 1900s, before then, and they’re just going to keep happening,” was what I heard the the elderly gentlemen sitting next to me at the Lakeside Theatre declare to his companion. Defying Hitler documents the rise of the Nazis from the perspective of Sebastian Haffner, an average German citizen, key events are referred to in relation to his struggle to cope in an increasingly alienating homeland.
Defying Hitler is a one-man show based on a memoir written by Haffner himself, Russell Bright’s portrayal of Haffner made him a relatable character in his ordinariness that he could be your next door neighbour, your teacher or family member. Written without the benefit of hindsight, Defying Hitler captures Haffner’s instinctual reactions to events as they happened, these snapshots of his life show how he was unwillingly swept along the path of the Third Reich. It was more effective than a textbook reciting the facts, the colloquial nature of the dialogue, adapted by Rupert Wickham, meant it was the personal experience of this trying time that was at the forefront of this performance. Without a moral constantly being drilled into the brain of each audience member, the play manages to re-humanize the German population in this period, drawing attention to the fact it was not as simple as being for or against the Nazi Party.
For any actor, holding an audience’s attention for an hour without an interval is a challenge in itself especially in a solo performance. The matter of fact tone in which events are described created the impression that Bright was talking directly to the audience, the shaking of heads and murmurs of agreement rumbling through the rows of people almost created a wordless conversation between audience and actor. Taking on the role of bystander and victim of peer pressure on the largest of scales, the justifications of his own actions are tinged with guilt, arguing that ‘it doesn’t count’. As an audience we find ourselves unable to place judgement since how many of us when asked a question by an authority figure would speak out in protest? We are able to access to Haffner’s private thoughts, his gradual build up of frustration caused by a combination of his Jewish friends having to leave, his father’s ill health and his own helplessness; it is clear that everyone suffered in Hitler’s reign.
The performance was set in Haffner’s bedroom and as the play progressed the generic pieces of furniture take on different places in Haffner’s life. The bedroom desk is at first the setting his classroom but as he grows up it becomes his office and place of work; his bed is transported underneath a tree relocating the scene to a park setting. His memories were recreated on stage enabling the audience to fully envisage Haffner’s vivid descriptions, aided by sound effects and lighting change. Switching between these settings, the one constant is the presence of the Nazis, suffocating Haffner’s life. Bright also took on the role other characters, his characterisation of Nazi Party members was particularly effective. In other an context this change in stance and German accent might have been considered comical, but it was in fact quite intimidating, making the audience feel Haffner’s fear and in turn fearing for him, by the end of the performance we feel ourselves supporting his compliance to the regime. From his school days in which Haffner is first introduced to a drawing of a swastika, like it was a feature in a twisted show and tell session, to the Nazi’s infiltrating his workplace and affecting his home life; the scary thought is that this became considered the norm for the majority.
The educational strand of the performance is obvious throughout and even present in the programme with a quick quiz section for students to complete (the couple next to me chose to ‘opt out’ joking that they would never be mistaken for teenagers now). Balancing the personal, the introduction of a new time in Haffner’s life was accompanied by a brief informative account of the state of the Nazi Party at this time, the two strands influencing one another. Walking out of the theatre, the learning process had clearly been successful, a school group describing it as an ‘entertaining revision session’ and for myself parts seemed as if I was in a lecture theatre. Though you may not be able to recite back on demand some of the specific dates after the performance, the story of Sebastian Haffner remains one prominent in the mind. Based on fact but relayed through theatre, this seemingly typical tale of how most German citizens would have coped with the extreme circumstances of the Nazi regime, I imagine many of the audience left wondering how we would have reacted under the same conditions.