nytheatre.com review by Seth Duerr
May 7, 2006
A severely unbalanced economy. Rape of civilian privacy. Invading “inferior” countries to spread one’s own beliefs. Doing so to finish a war started 15 years before. Why are Hitler’s Germany and Bush’s America so alike? It is frightening to ponder; it does, however, make the story of Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler very timely.
Sebastian Haffner was born in Berlin in 1907 and he lived through every major political event in Germany from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 until his eventual emigration to England in 1938.
The first thing one notices about Rupert Wickham’s Haffner is that he is not terribly interesting. In fact, for the first half-hour of this 80-minute soliloquy, it is often difficult to assess why we should be interested in our narrator at all. These moments are not without purpose however: we discover that our storyteller is just a civilian. Whether we know it or not, we start to identify with Wickham’s Haffner as an equal. It is this communion with the narrator that will make the rest of the journey so potent.
The story of Haffner’s life became a bestseller for 43 consecutive weeks, and it is easy to understand why. We listen in horror as the value of the Deutsche mark declines to an unbelievable low, as the Nazis become more and more powerful, and as Haffner’s own father, as well as the rest of retiring Germans, are subjected to signing “census” questionnaires declaring their devotion to the Nazi ideology or facing the loss of their pensions earned over a lifetime.
Haffner’s story is so striking because it deals solely with the prelude to the implementation of the Final Solution. Our narrator only brings us up to the mid-1930s and so he does not know what is to come, what the audience so painfully remembers. Rupert Wickham does a masterful job of adapting these events to the stage, as he is clearly concerned with the events leading up to an empire’s destruction, and therefore we must play mathematicians—calculating their modern implications. If the events leading up to the massacre of six million Jews seem to resemble the actions of our current administration, where might we end up?
Wickham’s performance is studied, conserved, even understated. It is this control which will make his increasing volatility towards the play’s end so powerful. It is a careful performance by a theatrical veteran, done so with passion, attention to detail and above all—humility.
Peter Symonds's direction allows Wickham the focused arena in which to perform the piece, and utilizes a superb sensibility for implementing music and lighting to enhance rather than distract.
Haffner closes with a question which brings tears to any victims of a government out of control: What became of the Germans?
Inevitably, we wonder what will become of us. Let us hope for a day that Haffner’s lessons will no longer be necessary.