One good man and a slippery slope

THE things that would worry me. Herr Professor John Halder (David Tennant) in CP Taylor’s brilliant play Good, screened by the National Theatre Live in South Africa this week. Photograph courtesy imdb

DO YOU THINK of yourself as basically a moral person? Yes, you may have broken a rule or two in your life. You may have left a relationship or so with pain inflicted and pain suffered. You may have lied or cheated on a microscopic scale. But are you basically bad? Probably not. This is where John Halder (David Tennant), a professor of German literature in 1930s Frankfurt finds himself, in the opening premises of CP Taylor’s terrifyingly fine play, Good. It is currently being screened at selected Cinema Nouveau branches, nation-wide, until 28 September, and is a product of National Theatre Live.

This is a contemporary Faust, with all the trimmings, the wit and the deeply sinister undertones. Written in 1981, the work looks at the European Holocaust and the eruption of Jew-hatred as the nexus of all evil. Halder, like Faust himself, is by and large everyman. He is not a Jew. The Nazi world which is burgeoning and growing around him, seduces his sense of values in a way that will keep you rivetted but chill you to the very bone, whether or not you are Jewish. Whether or not you have known persecution in your life.

Halder is taken flatteringly into the secret meetings of Nazi leadership. He likes being taken seriously. He relishes the idea of being privy to a secret conversation with important people. The first pivot that touches him involves a stranger, the mother to a child born with deformities. And then the slope turns slippery. Ideas creep surreptitiously into Halder’s sensibilities with regard to his incontinent mum who has dementia. Other ideas creep into his ability to self-justify behaviour, like cheating on his marriage, or burning books and the notion of being ‘good’ is warped and withered in such a way that the character himself is unable to take cognisance and another pivot sees him proudly as a card-carrying member of the SS – the Nazi party elite. But this is not an action play with obvious lines and a clear evil perpetrator. Or big bangs and explosions to clear your path, as you watch.

Set on a bare stage with a focus on dialogue, with a few flames and much music thrown in on the sides, the work is more about the human condition in a society which has enabled its moral core to rot. But slowly, subtly.

Taylor writes in a way that is described in the film during the play’s intermission as contrapuntal. A lot of things are happening at the same time, musically, narratively, visually. From time to time, they sing in harmony. Halder, the character, suffers from aural hallucinations. Music in his head fills his decision-making in way that plays ironically with his values. There is an incident, for instance, where the Drinking Song, from the 1954 musical The Student Prince forms a background in Halder’s head to his earnest navigations with the world, early in the play. It has the kind of sinister pull of the lied sung an ostensibly innocent beer garden in the 1972 musical Cabaret which separates German Nationalists crudely and horrifyingly from the rest of society.

The contrapuntal flow of dynamics and ideas, however, is richer than only a focus on music. With a cast of only three, many threads of Halder’s realities are presented. The dynamics with his mother, his wife, the leader of the political party, his Jewish friend Maurice. We’re shifted crisply from scenario to scenario, sometimes mid-thought, sometimes breaking gender assumptions, with the switch of a light or a turn of a head.

The work is so magnificently articulated, that with all these conversations and sub-conversations, the clarity of the sequence of events is never lost. You are juggling the circumstances in your head. It’s a matter of masterful casting and writing and performance and direction. In short, this is a perfect play with an ending that is perfectly logical but a vessel for the deepest horror of the depraved levels to which society can fall.

Focused on the calamity and unleashing of evil that allowed the European Holocaust to happen, it sadly remains to this day a prescient contemplation of values and self-image in our world, still bruised, still damaged, still susceptible to evil of the highest levels.

It is completely unmissable.

  • Good is directed by Dominic Cooke and performed by David Tennant, Elliot Levey and Sharon Small. Written by CP Taylor, the broadcast is produced by Ollie Gardner and features creative input by Vicki Mortimer (production design) and Zoe Spurr (lighting). Originally performed at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, it is being broadcast by National Theatre Live in South Africa at selected Cinema Nouveau movie theatres, on 27 and 28 September 2023.

2 replies »

  1. I walked out. Yours is now the fourth review I have read, alongside the Guardian, the Evening Standard and The Telegraph. They all gave it four stars. I did love what the Evening Standard said though: “This stark play is an important rather than an enjoyable watch”. I found it torturous and left after about 30 minutes, which I watched and listened to intently. So happy to be out the cinema.

Leave a Reply