On loss and bravery. And Penelope Wilton.

On Saturday evening, I went to see the play “Taken at midnight” again; this was the final performance of a brief West End run,  cut short by Downton Abbey. It seems strange to be writing about a play after it has closed, but I feel like I almost must, just to grieve the loss of it. It has happened before – in October last year, I heard Sir Thomas Allen sing Schubert’s Winterreise in the Holywell Music Room. I had bought the ticket months in advance,  and from the moment it arrived I was ever conscious of the date, looking forward to it like to little else before or since. When it was over, I wanted to cry; both the loss of the waiting and of the momentary perfection of the performance was almost overwhelming. There is great beauty in the fleeting nature of a live performance; great beauty, and great sadness. Once gone, a great performance can never be experienced again. Grasping on that, I saw this play three times over seven weeks, booking my last ticket (to the last performance) only days earlier, because I suddenly couldn’t bear the thought that I’d never see it again.
IMG_6996And what a glorious memory it is. This play got shortlisted for three Olivier awards (I’m not overtly optimistic, but feel like I’ll punch something if Wilton doesn’t win), and the general reviews have been glowing with praise. All deserved, every word. The cast was excellent, the production working perfectly. And there was something magical about seeing Wilton on the stage, seeing her artistry,  the sheer, simple skill of stagecraft honed to perfection. She disappeared, with only the character left on the stage, and yet – after a briefest of meetings on the stage door – I felt she was more genuine, more her, while standing on the stage than she was wrapped in shawls, fretting about her hair, and signing programs on the street behind the theatre, late in the evening.
IMG_6995I’m not sure why this particular play has gripped me in such particular way. Some of its most profound ideas and lines are almost cliched in their simplicity, and yet – no thought needs to be deeply unique to be profoundly true; and therein lies the beauty of this play. It deals with the deceptively simple concepts of courage, of evil, of the sheer absurdity of the sort of abstract evil Hitler and his followers represent (how Hitler called the Jews vermin and bacilli is repeated few times, almost as if to a comic effect), and with love. The central character loves her son, so giving up the fight for him is never an option; Irmgard maintains great, unbreached dignity because she’s not afraid to humiliate herself, to make herself a nuisance, to beg. She’s not intimidated by Dr Conrad’s incredibly shiny boots, medals or party badge, and she doesn’t care that she’s putting herself at risk. My secret prayer has always been “Please God, when the time comes – and it will – give me courage to stand up and say, this is not right”, and to me, that is what this play is ultimately about.
wilton handsTaken at Midnight, written by Mark Hayhurst and directed by Jonathan Church, premiered at the Chichester Theatre Festival in September 2014, and transferred to Theatre Royal Haymarket in January 2015. The closing performance was on March 14.

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