This rendering of CP Taylor’s ‘Good’ is a horrifying must-see.
Dominic Cooke’s interpretation of CP Taylor’s ‘Good’ follows the moral decline of John Halder (David Tennant), an anxiety-ridden professor who is seen as a sensible and moral figure by those around him. Beginning in Germany in 1933 at the heart of the rise of the Nazi Party, this work plays heavily on the justification of evil and the morality of doing what is good for oneself, rather than for everyone else. In this performance, Tennant plays Halder throughout, while Elliot Levey (Maurice) and Sharon Small (Anne) alternate roles as Halder switches scenes. While we follow the moral decline played fantastically by Tennant, Small and Levey’s supporting performances are remarkable.
A man experiencing a kind of midlife crisis, Halder takes the audience through his memories, marked by different phases of the music of the time. Halder dutifully acts as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to his children after his wife’s struggle with disabling mental illness; while he also cares for his demented and vulnerable mother. Tennant is wonderfully haunting as a ‘normal’ man bound by the duties of his family, his eyes shining with resentment as he makes seemingly loving gestures of support for the women in his life. Tennant’s fond smiles act as a mask for a man seemingly devoid of empathy and affection, as he receives none in return from his family. Halders has a significant connection to his only friend, Maurice, a Jewish professor. The pair often meet for coffee and criticize the rise of Hitler, reassuring each other that the rise in anti-Semitism can only be temporary. The scenes of Tennant and Levey together are an interesting dynamic, with Tennant portraying a clear emotional detachment towards his friend despite stating that he values their connection above all else, even nodding to the quasi-gay friendship in nature. . Halder frequently dismisses Maurice’s anxieties, reasoning that the Nazi persecution of the Jews “is a temporary racist aberration” that will be abandoned in favor of other promised policies. Levey’s captivating performance of a desperate but confident Maurice results in their relationship being Halders’ most significant source of guilt throughout the play, with the two turning from loyal equals to persecutor and victim.
After a period of great stress while caring for his mother, Halder commits a first life sin by publishing an impassioned essay promoting euthanasia. This attracts the attention of leading Nazis, and Halder is seduced into joining the party. Maurice and Halder fight over the morality of this decision and Halders’ sudden move to leave his wife after an affair with his student Anne. During this heated, swear-laden conversation, Tennant has a surprise song about whether he should leave Germany or flee into the woods with Anne, bringing surreal comic relief to an otherwise heavy plot.
However, Halder later takes it upon himself to lead the book burning at the University, cementing his descent into moral hell. Bathed in a blue light, Tennant turns to the audience to monologue his feelings of fear, before his expression turns cold and pleased at being reassured by his actions. Halder agrees, justifying it as symbolism for the University to value books over students’ life experiences. Halder selfishly steals books of personal value for private enjoyment, at the cost of destroying the knowledge of others. This scene marks a clear turn for the worse, and as the flames on the stage flicker, the feelings of discomfort within the audience are palpable. Despite occasional moral panics, Halder rises through the Nazi ranks. After his controversial essay, a letter of recommendation from Hitler himself makes Halder responsible for a top-secret national project: the euthanasia of disabled people. While the audience immediately recognizes the sinister implications of Halders’ project for other vulnerable social groups, Halder confidently believes that this is an opportunity for him to provide kind and ethical “good” for a “suffering” population. Throughout the play, Halder is referred to as a “good man,” but the more he falls into Nazism, the greater the consequence of the justification he places on his troubling actions. Sharon Small is mesmerizing by frequently switching between playing the gentle and supportive Anne and Halders’ main male Nazi confidant, a character who encourages Halder to normalize his increasingly serious crimes. While Anne and Halder enjoy a comfortable and indulgent life within the party, both privately harbor doubts about the ethics of their actions.
A key scene within the work is the Night of Broken Glass. The stage is plunged into darkness for several minutes with no visual effects, with shockingly loud screams and sounds of mass violence generating feelings of horror. Halder is present at the event and was stunned by the reality of what he is now a part of, before seeing Maurice crying in the streets. Halder defensively says angrily that the violence towards Jews is his own fault for not leaving the country sooner, as he looks into the eyes of a defeated Maurice who now understands the fate of his family. However, Halder has repeatedly refused Maurice’s pleas to help him escape, and by blaming Maurice for his own suffering, Halder fatally buries any personal responsibility. This final scene with Maurice makes the point that the right thing is often not the easiest thing to do, and Halders’ selfishness comes at a terrible price.
The play ends with her one horrible costume change. Halders’s “survival” choices to better his own life led him to oversee the first trains to Auschwitz in 1939. The damning personal consequences for Halders some six years later can only be imagined. Significantly, the characters in this work were never innately evil or sadistic, but rather normally and consistently described as “good”. Their wishes for job security, security, and belonging were granted at a cost to others, and the ease with which they distanced themselves from the reality they created was deeply uncomfortable to witness. Halder even comments to the audience at a late stage that his high-ranking SS comrades did not seem “normal”, but rather strange and emotionless. There is a constant cognitive dissonance in this fallen man, unable to understand or accept the nightmare his life has become. This play brings stark reminders of what happens when social groups with small voices are scapegoated for the problems of the average worker.