David Tennant finds apathy in the abstract as a literary professor turned Nazi in Good. C. P. Taylor’s play, about academic John Halder’s embrace of antisemitism in pre-war Germany, is given a timely revival by Dominic Cooke, in the present era of political binaries and post-truth phenomena.
The Doctor Who actor is immediately mesmerising with an initial open-mouthed, raised eyebrows expression which says so much – a dread and fear when forced to confront the magnitude of what’s unfolded. He tells us he hears bands which soundtrack moments of his life in different styles depending on his mood and the situation, pondering whether it could be “a strategy for survival, turning the reality into fantasy”. As he begins his descent into Nazism, constantly floundering for justifications as to why the party is becoming increasingly violent towards Jewish people.
Director Dominic Cooke’s version of Taylor’s work – his first to debut on the West End as part of the Fictionhouse production company – is boldly minimalist. The assortment of secondary characters in the original are condensed into roles performed by either Elliot Levey (Cabaret) or Sharon Small (The Trials), who jolt between roles in an often dizzying fashion. Vicki Mortimer’s gritty set is a curious box of tricks complementing Zoe Spurr’s smart lighting design, and curiously, the only visible props are those pertaining to the Nazis and their actions. It’s a clever little detail, suggesting everything else is simply immaterial to Halder.
Like a piece of music itself, the play has a tireless allegro pacing. There are moments in which it’s difficult to ascertain exactly who is speaking, or if not that, who a character is speaking to. The aforementioned minimalism in the direction extends to Small and Levey’s performances, as it is often a hand placed in the pocket or a faint switch of an accent which suggests a change in persona.
If I was more appreciative and sympathetic to the artistic decision to reduce the main cast down to three, then I’d likely be more inclined to accept the disorientating character and scene changes as referencing Halder’s own confusion and instability. Unfortunately, it’s one of Cooke’s weaker stylistic choices, the first act concluding with minimal progression as Halder formally joins the Nazi party, but with a rushed tempo.
Though it is haunting just how passive Halder becomes to it all – least of all the book-burning, as someone with a profound love of literature. He distances himself from it all. If he’s not giddy and wide-eyed in amazement at just how quickly everything is moving, then he’s disinterested in the more banal aspects of his life, like his bothersome mother who has dementia and he wishes to euthanise. Halder acknowledges he’s happy, but fails to recognise at what cost, and the sacrifices he has made to get there.
In living in the moment and focussing on what is happening, the professor manages to push the past and everything else to the periphery, and rather scarily, there’s a sense of us falling victim to that too – in that looking back on Good now, comparing Halder from the start to the end, the drastic change feels all so sudden and the academic at the start being so distant to the uniformed SS soldier in front of us.
The detachment running through the plot is chilling – even more so when it is substantiated by Hadler’s rejection of objective morality, and an agreed sense of right and wrong. The abandonment of universally agreed concepts like truth, reality and morality – which we are already seeing in the fringes of our politics – always ends badly, and so this staging feels like a warning.
The production from the 80s feels ahead of its time with this version from Cooke. To say that Good is good would not only be a sloppy understatement, but would dismiss the essential apathy of the play which makes it so haunting and unsettling.
Good is now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 24 December. A captioned performance is scheduled for 18 October.
Audio described and sign language interpreted performances will take place on 2 and 29 November respectively.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Good’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.