- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 331-333
[Access article in PDF]
Albert Speer. By David Edgar. Royal National Theatre, London. 2 June 2000.
In an unsettling scene in David Edgar's play, Hitler (Roger Allam) and his prospective Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer (Alex Jennings), discussed scale models of the proposed "New Berlin" with its widely-cut boulevards to rival their Parisian archetypes. Hitler's conviction to build his fascist monoliths, particularly the Great Hall with planned seating for 180,000, was unwavering. As in most of the play, Hitler was made disturbingly real, psychologically sound, and enthusiastically defiant. But, at the conclusion of this four-hour epic, he was disheveled, his militaristic savvy quelled by the force of history. He was, in the end, a pathetic little man who, even as bombs ripped his city apart, appreciated the "dreadful beauty" of the Nazi collapse. And what of the enigmatic Speer--a man who served years in prison for his role in Germany's ruling cadre and who passionately convinced himself that while he earnestly worked on his buildings, he knew nothing of the Final Solution? Speer was, of course, the author of Inside the Third Reich. Standing next to his mentor, the once timid Speer evolved into a recalcitrant realist. He saw the futility of the fight and wished the war over. After all, the playwright implied, Speer's conscience was clean; he could get on with his life.
The National Theatre's production of Edgar's play focused on Speer's very public personal dilemma and was based on Gitta Sereny's book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. A sometimes [End Page 331] [Begin Page 333] beguiling account of guilt and innocence in the face of war, this story was worth telling, particularly as it strove toward classic tragedy with Speer positioned as a sort of twentieth century Oedipus. If it failed to vivify its subject, it succeeded in demonstrating the vigorous power of historical drama.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, the production made use of all the Lyttelton Theatre's technical capacity. Nunn incorporated angled light (eerily at times echoing the "Cathedral of Light" designed by Speer in 1934 for the Nuremberg Party Congress), billowing smoke, and sharply diagonal lines to convey a vast number of scenes. With over fifty characters and hordes of supernumeraries, Nunn's deft blocking again emphasized his unique gift for making thirty people look like 300.
However, some of the staging was clunky and the enormous number of set pieces was cumbersome. Designer Ian MacNeil (responsible for the majestically conceived National production of An Inspector Calls) seemed overwhelmed. The play covered every aspect of Speer's life, from his first meeting with Hitler to a post-prison dinner and reunion (with full table settings for twelve) with his extended family. Even a party for Speer's book-signing was not given short shrift. Exhausted actors wheeled on set pieces of every conceivable size and shape. We were taken (not whisked to be sure--perhaps pushed or pulled) to Hitler's office, Spandau Prison in 1947, the front, Eva Braun's bunker, and, when he finally admitted that he "turned away" from the reality of Hitler's genocide, inside Speer's head.
The real problem, however, arose not from the staging, but when the audience was asked to consider Speer's contention that he simply "didn't know" what Goebbels and Himmler were planning with regard to the Jews. More intriguing and problematic was the way the production sometimes encouraged our belief. This position did not sit well with many who, when Speer cried out his innocence--and he did often--grumbled and groused a chorus of indignant "harumphs."
The simplistic premise of the conflict hinged on Speer's poor relationship with his father. The senior Speer, stentorian and august, berated his son's skill at architecture as readily as Hitler praised it. When the Führer asked Speer's father for an assessment of his son's plans for the New Berlin, despite the intimidating circumstances, he turned to his son and said only: "I think you are all...