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Judging Nuremberg

Review by Corinna Lotz

Tosca’s Kiss by Kenneth Jupp at the Orange Tree, Richmond, weaves a many-layered story around the trials of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in 1946, following Germany’s defeat by the Allies. The prosecution of the Third Reich’s chief economist Hjalmar Schacht, dubbed “Hitler’s magician”, is viewed through the eyes of British writer, Rebecca West, who was covering the trials for the Daily Telegraph.

Tosca's Kiss: Julia Watson plays Rebecca West

Julia Watson as Rebecca West

West, played by Julia Watson, is the lens through which history is refracted, but it is not a simple one. During her sojourn in the bombed out shell that was Nuremberg, life and art become intertwined. The charming and knowing Francis Biddle (David Yelland), appointed by President Truman as a judge at the trials, takes her out to the opera. West, somewhat ironically, is inspired by the thought of Puccini’s heroine, Tosca, who is faced with compromise in order to save her lover. Yet she and Biddle end up in bed together.

The self-indulgent shenanigans of the American and British officers, judges and journalists are in stark contrast to the horrors of Nazi rule as well as the meagre existence of ordinary Germans in their “year zero”. “Cigarettes,” explains the young American lawyer, Tom Morton (Steven Elder), “are like currency. German girls will sleep with you for one or two Camels, and for a pack, you can get a whole family thrown in.”

Tosca's Kiss: Steven Elder plays American lawyer

Steven Elder as Tom Morton

The inexperienced Morton, traumatised by what he saw in the Dachau concentration camp, had accepted the brief that no-one else would take – the case for the prosecution of Schacht. Morton really believes in the probity of the legal process in which he is involved. In his courtroom confrontation with Schacht we feel a historic conflict being played out.

The wily economist’s guilt becomes evident. This was the man who orchestrated the industrialists and bankers support for the Nazi party, however distasteful its brutality may have been for some of the upper classes. For Schacht, brilliantly played by Charles Kay, the concentration camps were simply “excesses” (or “collateral damage” in today’s military-speak) and bad for business.

Charles Kay as Hjalmar Schacht

Charles Kay as Hjalmar Schacht

In self-defence Schacht neatly turns the tables on Morton, pointing to the support Nazi Germany had from the international business community and the fact that IG Farben, a company which used concentration camp labour, was a subsidiary of Standard Oil. He cites the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes by the Allies, as well as the devastation of Nuremberg, Dresden and Hamburg.

He claims that Nazism was the “capitalist dream package: destruction of the trade unions, elimination of the Communist Party and unlimited profits”. Slowly it becomes clear that Schacht will not be convicted. As Biddle says, the West had to rebuild the capitalist system in Germany and they needed Schacht’s expertise. “Someone has to steer the ship,” he remarks.

Watson and Elder’s subtle performances brilliantly evoke the stench of compromise and betrayal that prevailed at Nuremberg. They provide the foil to Morton’s real commitment and Schacht’s realpolitik. In the background was the post-war settlement between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. Truman and Churchill became more concerned with holding back Soviet influence than tracking down those responsible for the horrors of Nazism. The “denazification” process of Germany by Britain and the US rapidly became a farce, and Nuremberg was its first act, as Tom Bower’s excellent book A Blind Eye to Murder has documented.

Under Auriol Smith’s direction, The Orange Tree has staged a finely-tuned, sensitively acted and gripping production. The set design and costumes are totally convincing and the theatre’s shape is superbly suited to the courtroom theme, the audience becoming both jury and witness. If you don’t believe this reviewer, perhaps Harold Pinter’s enthusiasm for the play should speed you along to see it.

Tosca’s Kiss is at the Orange Tree, Richmond until June 3 Box office 020 8940 3633 Pictures above by Robert Day

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