IN QUEST OF CONSCIENCE
by Gitta Sereny adapted by Robert David MacDonald.
Finborough Theatre above The Finborough Wine Café 118 Finborough Road SW10 9ED To 27 June 2011.
Runs 1hr 55min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 847 1652 (24hr no booking fee).
Review: Timothy Ramsden 11 June.
A powerful play diminished by this production’s approach.
Both Robert David MacDonald’s title and that of Gitta Sereny’s book from which his 1994 play was drawn, Into That Darkness, point to the moral search in this chamber piece with vast implications.
Though the Finborough’s a small-space, it’s ample compared with the tiny Stalls Studio carved out of Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre where theatrical polymath MacDonald was a director – and actor, appearing in his own premiere of this play.
That production’s intensity came from the very ordinariness – almost the calm – of MacDonald’s performance as Franz Stangl (Sereny’s fellow Austrian, but no way her moral compatriot), a policeman pushed – as he puts it – into becoming commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. His memories are supplemented by more neutral information from two chorus-like figures.
The question of how moral good and Nazi membership meet has been explored in C P Taylor’s Good and by a joke in Martin Sherman’s Bent, while the focus of Sereny and MacDonald on moral blindness has been piercingly paralleled on a smaller, but no less intense, case in Bryony Lavery’s searing Frozen.
Stangl’s excuses and personal anxieties as he calmly expounds thousands of actual, and even more intended, deaths – at one point self-satisfyingly recounting a prisoner’s gratitude, at others dismissing the fate of people he mentions with Coriolanus-like arrogant disregard – create a moral murk from which the interviewer escapes for one telling moment when a telephone call reconnects her with the world of sanity.
At the preview there were hesitant moments, probably smoothed-out by now. Less certain to improve is the approach this production takes. At the Glasgow premiere, MacDonald sat comfortably in his cardigan, showing no moral quaver or moment’s uncertainty. At the Finborough Martin Buchan’s similarly-costumed but leaner figure can seem effortfully self-justifying. Buchan has some good moments, glowing in his own self-esteem at certain remembered actions, but remains on edge.
So the production misses the complacency and assurance that conviction and imprisonment have never shaken, while formal moments, such as swapping table ends between the characters seem unnecessary frills. There’s competent playing generally but this quietly forceful piece deserves a more considered revival.
Franz Stangl: Martin Buchan.
Female Chorus: Siubhan Harrison.
Male Chorus: Patrick Knowles.
Gitta Sereny: Phillipa Peak.
Director: Rachel Heyburn.
Designer: Florence McHugh.
Lighting: Dan Cloake.
Sound: Chris Barlow.
Dialect coach: Christopher Gutmann.