Judgement at Nuremberg – alarming and adroit

Art & Lit Stage
The cast of Judgement at Nuremberg were absolutely clear on one thing. This was not to be a play about Nazis. That seemed a difficult goal, given the script (about Nazis). But the production nonetheless manages to avoid trope and cliché in its depiction of their trials: the entire point is that we do not know whom to support, whom to trust, what to believe. We are left as helpless and reeling as the three arbiters. Indeed, the immersive setting rather makes us feel as though we share their position – if we’re not on trial ourselves, that is. The Keble O’Reilly has been transformed into a thrust stage, and director Jessica Lazar explains that she told the speakers never to be afraid to eyeball audience members; an instruction followed without compunction. It is us who are afraid.
Opening nights always imbue performers with a certain energy, a kind of frisson, but the cast explain that this evening was something else. “I actually felt like I was on trial” admits Claire Bowman, from her role as the young German girl suspected of having “intimate relations” with a Jewish man. “I felt like a witness. The audience had a weird effect…” Her stammer upon swearing in was apparently quite genuine – a believable claim. The whole play is believable; that’s the problem. It’s damning and terrifying. Jessica concurs in discussion of the audience’s role; “There was an extraordinary change. What the audience were doing was feeding back into the play.” In the drama’s juddering, harrowing climax, members of the front rows were sat forward in their chairs, hands to mouths – gasping for resolution every bit as much as those on stage.

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Each character is based upon either a real person, or composite (and verbatim) transcripts of several real persons. Abby Mann, the play’s author, was a journalist. In penning Judgement at Nuremberg, he pulled together the lives of separate people and their interaction in such a way as to create figures which are almost grotesquely authentic. These people are not microcosms of some greater whole, they’re not designed to showcase some abiding characteristic or trait – they exist only as real, complicated individuals. Luke Rollason (Oscar Rolfe, the defending lawyer) talks about the weight of their characters upon each of them. The cast sympathise with their homicidal, genocidal characters. So do we.

“Everyone seems like human beings” muses one of the judges, and it’s true, because they were. Seeing this renders the inhuman happenings of Nazi Germany incomprehensible – something which is far harder to accept than our traditional black-and-white, good-and-bad approach. Judgement at Nuremberg’s gift is in showing us that if there was evil, it was (in Arendt’s words) simply banal. As Hannah Bristow (Frau Bertholt, a German widow) put it: “What it boils down to is the humanness of the Germans”. Not their humanity, not any kindness or forgivable error, but their humanness. The fact that we can relate.

Judgement at Nuremberg is an awesome, awful play, and immensely demanding from its cast and crew. The spectre of loss is very present: each role is finessed, but also raw and brutal. It is not possible to forget the demands upon every member of the team. There is no subtle way of honouring its missing protagonist. But the play is dedicated, in every sense of the word, to him.

Judgement at Nuremberg is showing at the Keble O’Reilly theatre until the 9th of November. More information and tickets are available here.

 PHOTOS/ Duncan Cornish