This evening I was privileged to be in the audience of a performance of Albert Speer at the National Theatre.
The twentieth century has seen some truly great performances in both classic and modern plays. The performance of Alex Jennings in the title role of this production will either be remembered as the last great performance of the twentieth century or the first of the twenty-first century depending on when you believe the change takes place.
David Edgar has written a play that takes the biographical writing of Gitta Sereny and transforms it into an amazingly gripping piece of drama.
Beginning with Speer's first involvement with the National Socialist party in the 1930s, through his first meeting and subsequent close relationship with Adolf Hitler, the play charts the degeneration in their relationship and the decline in the fortunes of Albert Speer as he comes to believe that Germany has no hope in winning the second world war.
The play opens as Speer, along with others convicted at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, begins his incarceration in Spandau Prison. The story is told in flashback with Speer giving his own account of events to a priest.
The second half of the play shows Albert Speer within the prison, followed by his release. Release from Spandau does not bring true freedom, however, as he is haunted by the past and questions concerning how much he knew of the Final Solution. Not only do others question his knowledge, but Speer himself is forced to search for the truth also.
Trevor Nunn has directed a superb production. While the plot concerns themes of epic proportion and their huge historical implications, the play never drifts from its central premise of following the human story of this one man who was so close to the heart of the Third Reich.
The Nuremberg rallies, the clearing of the Jewish ghettoes and finally the disposal of the emaciated bodies of those killed in the death camps is depicted on stage simply and through the excellent use of film projection of real events. All of these images have been seen numerous times before, but never has the filling of mass graves using mechanical earth movers been more shocking than as the backdrop to the personal conflict being endured by Albert Speer.
Ian MacNeil has designed a marvellous set, especially the incredible model of Speer's design for the rebuilding of Berlin. To see Adolf Hitler striding around the model like a despotic giant is a terrifying image that lingers long after the scene has ended. But it is Rick Fisher's lighting that contributes most to this play. The scene in which Speer suffers nightmares in which he is visited by the long dead Hitler, the brilliant bright red glow evokes a vision of hell echoed in the text through Faustian references.
There is not a single performance out of place in this production. Roger Allam manages to make the character of Adolf Hitler sympathetic in his straightforward but excellent performance with no hint of caricature whatsoever. Jessica Turner gives a perfectly understated performance of Margareta, Albert Speer's dutiful and faithful wife.
But I repeat that the great performance comes from Alex Jennings in the title role. He is truly stunning in his portrayal of Speer. Witnessing this on the day that the death of Sir John Gielgud was announced, one great British theatrical era may have ended, but another may be in full swing, because I believe that Alex Jenning's performance in Trevor Nunn's production of David Edgar's play will be a long-remembered part of National Theatre history and also British drama as a whole.