hessGilded Balloon Teviot
Aug 15, 17-22, 24-29
1 hour 15 minutes
Group: Kim Kinnie / Gilded Balloon

This is a powerful one man show about Rudolf Hess the Deputy Fuhrer of the German Reich. Hess (Derek Crawford Munn) speaks directly to the audience from Spandau prison where he has been locked up for decades. Originally designed for six hundred prisoners Spandau has housed only Hess (after the release of Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach on October 1, 1966). The New York Times said: ‘In Burrell’s ingenious script and brilliant characterisation, HESS is many things, all provocative: a memoir of a madman, a study of political fanaticism, a treatise on justice, a portrait of old age, an analysis of penal confinement, a descent into Hell.’

It is all that and more. Hess stumbles around the stage, often in pain but his fanaticism and loyalty to Adolf Hitler seldom wavers. Hess recounts his life beginning with his birth in Alexandria, through his military service in World War One and including his ill-fated peace flight to Scotland in 1941. At turns he accuses the allies and audience of both complicity and hypocrisy. He attacks the Justice of his own 1945 hearing before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and, indeed, the whole concept of the trial. Hess poses questions about reform which are thought-provoking. He asks how someone without hope for any future, who knows they will die in prison, and with a severely restricted present can do anything else but live in the past. Can such a person be expected to repudiate that past and the last vestiges of any human identity?

As Hess describes the conditions of his imprisonment it is difficult not to feel some sympathy. For years Hess himself had refused visits from his family but after a severe illness he agreed to visits in 1969. He was allowed only half an hour a month with his closest relatives. No touching was ever allowed. He was forbidden presents on his Birthday or at Christmas. Hess speaks eloquently and movingly about this. For me one of the most powerful sections was his recounting of key events in the lives of audience members, their first day at school, their first kiss and so on ending with “I was here”. The terrible weight of years of solitary confinement was hammered home.

As sympathy is evoked we are also reminded of the terrible crimes of the Nazis. Although holding the title of Deputy Fuhrer Hess was a marginal figure in terms of actual power. Hess had flown to Britain in a bid to broker a peace deal and been subsequently absent for the period of the implementation of the Holocaust and indeed there is no evidence of any involvement in the planning of this. Nonetheless he put his name to anti-Jewish laws passed in 1935 which defined what a Jew was, forbade intermarriage and removed civil rights. In his final statement at Nurmeberg he was unrepentant and praised Hitler. The performance shows Hess seeking to rationalise and justify Nazi policy, particularly the concept of “living space” or territorial expansion. Hess clearly believed that Germans were superior to Slavs who he vilified and disparaged. Thie was perhaps the most uncomfortable section of the performance for the audience. It’s this tension between sympathy and revulsion that is one of the things that makes the play so fascinating.

You go away from this show with conflicting emotions and many questions in your mind. Questions about the relationship of punishment and revenge; about Justice and war and about mercy. These issues didn’t die with the suicide of Rudolf Hess in August 1987. In fact, setting out our own moral ground is becoming ever more imperative in a world in which ‘civilised values’ are under increasing challenge.

Five Stars

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington


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