by Marc Kidson
It is a pet fact of many History teachers that before becoming one of the chief architects of mass murder for the Nazi regime, Heinrich Himmler had been a modest chicken farmer. It seems incongruous that a man of so provincial an occupation could have stamped his mark so irredeemably across the twentieth century, and have been culpable for millions of deaths. Sadly, it is also hard to believe that David Cochrane’s Chicken Farmer could combine a plausible dramatic narrative with ribald farce and poetic dialogue. For this reason, the climactic tension of “the choice” that Himmler must make fails to materialise in a convincing way. Nonetheless, the production displays some effective writing and offers some worthwhile performances, especially notable given the potential for historical plays to descend into caricature.
Cochrane’s most effective dramatic device is arguably Hitler’s position onstage. He remains upstage, often shrouded in darkness, mute and brooding over a revolver for most of the play. This acutely underlines the constant references to both his significance and his impotence with the coming end of the Nazi state, amplifying the attempts of all around him to manipulate their former Führer.
Rhys Jones offers us a repentant Albert Speer, played with a casual, almost flippant cynicism that contrasts favourably with the over-statement of David Cochrane as Goering or Dan Rawnsley as Dr Morrell. These characters appear indulgent, providing unnecessary and unwanted comic relief from the paranoiac intensity of the bunker. Although the Blackadder-esque comedy is well played, its role in the play is difficult to fathom.
Mona Schroedel-York and Roisin Watson, playing Magda Goebbels and Eva Braun, add a refreshing female dimension to the politics. Magda is portrayed as a scheming Lady Macbeth figure, which works well with Watson, who manages to evoke the only genuine pathos of the play as Eva Braun realises her powerlessness in the machinations around her. However, while Tom Garner’s role as Himmler is assured and at times impressive, it is let down by the failure of the plot to build a sufficient sense of climax in the character’s fate in which the audience can be swept up.
Alongside historical facts clunking awkwardly from the mouths of the characters, the playwright makes key cultural allusions, to Wagner and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire amongst others, and adroitly introduces classical references. Some of these sit oddly within the dialogue of the play; they are at times apt and profound but are often conspicuous and forced. The dialogue shifts from highly poetic language in antiquated syntax to very modern coarse language. Neither of these approaches is to be derided as a possible portrayal of the last days of the Third Reich, but jumping indiscriminately from one to the other leaves a credibility gap.
Cochrane’s interpretation of the Führer’s bunker risks at times reducing the bitter struggle for power at the end of Third Reich to little more than the jostling for position in the Oxford Union, or worse, the backbiting and duplicity in the Big Brother House. However, he writes with some flair and expression, which need only to be reconciled with dramatic realism to allow his characters to come truly alive and the narrative to unfold more naturally.
Chicken Farmer is running Tuesday 16th-Saturday 20th October at the OFS at 7:30, with a 2:30 Saturday matinee.