“You all seem like human beings,” says Judge Harwood to Frau Bertholt, “and yet such inhuman things happened here.”
The beauty of Judgment at Nuremberg lies in its ability to humanise history. It is concerned with how far we should be held responsible for doing as we are told, superimposing real people and their consciences onto the death tolls of the Holocaust. Judge Harwood (Jonathan Purkiss) says at one point that if the men in the Nazi government had been “perverse degenerates”, the atrocities which took place would have been as unavoidable and unremarkable as an earthquake.
In fact, the people who find themselves on trial are normal men, who were educated adults before Hitler’s rise to power; they were then given the tools to torture, sterilise and exterminate — this idea is far more unsettling.
Despite two minor setbacks before the play even started — the pedals falling off my bike on Cowley Road, and the woman beside me in the Keble O’Reilly falling prey to incredibly loud hiccups — I was impressed throughout by the calibre of acting and staging. To anyone who did the Edexcel A2 ‘Kaiser to Fuhrer’ module: this one’s for you. The play’s treatment of ‘consent versus consensus’ and the ‘Hitler myth’ is sure to leave you feeling smug about your residual knowledge and nostalgic for sixth form.
As a chiefly British audience, our prejudices and hypocrisies are examined on stage through the device of American judges. We are reminded of how shaky the victors’ moral high ground is: Hiroshima and Nagasaki are evocative examples used by an ex-Nazi to question whether the Allies are in any position to judge the rest of the world. The court case is lengthy and intricate: with a run-time of two and a half hours, the first half did feel a little drawn out, with its final line unfortunately garbled and difficult to hear from the back.
However, once the scene had been set, the audience settled in for a dynamic production in the capable hands of this stellar cast. Purkiss gave a flawless and convincing performance from beginning to end, complete with perfect drawl and impressive limp. Relief from the tension of the courtroom came in the form of evening scenes between Frau Bertholt (Hannah Bristow) and Harwood. Bristow plays a stoic German widow with a distinct Britishness: her easy movements and natural delivery make scenes between Bristow and Purkiss a definite highlight.
Elsewhere, Luke Rollason gives a mature and multilateral performance as Oscar Rolfe. As an attorney, his character is required to perform in court, presenting only one side of the argument when in fact he sees them all. Despite an occasionally slippery accent, his final speech in court defending some of the most reprehensible figures of 20th century history is unnervingly valid and faultlessly executed.
The play crescendos at the end with a series of impassioned and eloquent speeches: the atmosphere is tense as the audience is convinced by one speaker then dissuaded by the next. When Ernst Janning (Charles Hooper) finally addresses the court, his presence fills the room.
Following last week’s camp-fest The Producers, Judgment at Nuremberg offers a more serious portrayal of the Nazis. The cast’s decision to carry on with the play following the tragic loss of a key character is commendable. The script is intricate, the acting compelling and assured.
Judgment at Nuremberg is playing at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 9th November, tickets are available here
The production is dedicated to the memory of Conor Robinson, a Magdalen student involved in the production, who sadly died last month.