An Interview With Penelope Wilton By Phil Hewitt
Monday, January 12th, 2015
Ahead of Taken At Midnight opening this Thursday Phil Hewitt caught up with Penelope Wilton to talk about taking on the role of German mother Irmgard Litten in Mark Hayhurst’s new play.
Penelope Wilton plays a redoubtable German mother trying to free her son from Nazi imprisonment at a very specific moment in history. But it’s a moment which resonates still around the world with a timelessness which will never go away.
Penelope, twice a winner of the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award, believes that Irmgard Litten stands in some ways for all mothers whose children have ‘disappeared’, whatever the era, whatever the country.
“There are so many children that have vanished in Chile and Argentina and so on, children disappearing without trace,” says the Downton Abbey star. “It is happening all the time.”
Mark Hayhurst’s new play Taken at Midnight, which premiered to wide acclaim in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre at the end of September, tells the harrowing true story of Hans Litten, the celebrated lawyer in 1930s Berlin, who so famously put Hitler in the dock – with devastating consequences… for Litten.
Penelope created the role of Hans’ mother in Chichester and reprises it now for the West End transfer of Taken At Midnight at Theatre Royal Haymarket. As she says, to be the first in a role is always a particular pleasure for an actor.
“Jonathan Church is directing. I hadn’t worked with him before, but we did a little workshop for this play about 18 months ago. The play was written, and we did a reading and worked on it for a bit with a group of actors including myself and also with Jonathan and Mark. Mark made a few adjustments. But yes, it is nice to create a role. One rarely does get the chance with new writing.
“It’s Mark’s first play. He is a documentary film-maker and writer, and he made a documentary film about this young lawyer Hans Litten who was a courageous and extraordinary man.
“This was 1931, two years before Hitler came to power, and Hitler was trying to make himself more legitimate and move himself away from the thuggery of his storm troopers whilst still needing them.”
Nazi thugs murdered a number of communists, and at their trial, Litten’s aim was to tie Hitler directly to their actions, so damaging his efforts to appeal to the middle classes, a courageous move but one ultimately fatal to Litten.
The experience arouses in Hitler a feeling he can’t abide or forget. Two years later, on the night of the Reichstag fire, Litten is arrested. He is held without trial, beaten, tortured, and threatened as ‘an enemy of human society’.
When Hitler came to power, Litten disappeared into protective custody – supposedly protective to Litten, but in reality anything but.
“Hitler never forgot, and nor did his acolytes. Hans was taken into prison and never really came out. He was never brought to trial.”
Irmgard’s vain hope was to secure his release. At enormous personal risk, she confronts his captors, courageously battling a system seemingly determined to close every door in her face.
Inevitably, it’s a role Penelope approaches with a degree of admiration for a remarkable, resolute and brave figure in a play which comes with the huge added poignancy that Irmgard was a woman who lived and breathed.
Hans is the victim, but in a sense, the play itself is a mother’s tale.
As playwright Mark Hayhurst makes it clear, she wasn’t a political person. She came from an established east Prussian family of merchants and physicians; and it seems likely she watched with anxiety when her son Hans threw himself into left-wing politics in 1920s Berlin.
But her own sense of justice burned strongly. When Hans’ legal practice was struggling financially, it was Irmgard who helped keep it going.
However, in a sense, it is with Hans’ arrest that her story really begins.
As Penelope says: “Irmgard is a very strong woman.”
And that strength enables her to make some headway into the Nazi mentality. Through sheer persistence and through a mother’s love, she becomes adept – insofar as it was possible – at dealing with the Gestapo.
“She isn’t frightened though she becomes frightened towards the end,” Penelope says. “But she fights a very, very noble battle. At certain moments it seems there are times when it might be possible for her to win, but always the circumstances change. The political circumstances change, and the possibility closes.”
And thus Hans’ fate was sealed.
But Irmgard and her husband, by now separated, did in fact both manage to escape Nazi Germany as the Second World War approached, her husband to Northern Ireland and Irmgard to England where she lived for a number of years. She eventually wrote a memoir of her experiences, valuable insight for playwright Hayhurst into Irmgard’s inner strength.
All of which adds to the responsibility, as Penelope sees it. This is someone whose thoughts are documented. Again, a great strength of the piece is that Penelope is playing someone who actually lived.
“But the play doesn’t give every single detail of her life. Some things Mark has had to create. I am not trying to impersonate her because that just wouldn’t work, though obviously there is some photographic evidence that we can use.”
For Penelope, Taken at Midnight marks a triumphant return to the West End stage following a five year absence. Last seen starring opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet, Penelope is very much looking forward to sharing Irmgard’s inspirational tale with the London audience.
Taken At Midnight runs from 15th January until 14th March 2015. Book your tickets here