Franz Stangl oversaw the deaths of almost a
million people during the fourteen months he was Commandant of the Treblinka
extermination camp in
Nazi-occupied Poland. And there were many more, while he held other positions
Neil Haynes’ design places the action inside a perspex box with clearly visible bars at the front separating us from the action. The set itself is a bare room – just anonymous chairs and tables – but the effect of that box is to make us feel that an attempt is being made to contain the evil, and keep us separate from it.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this production is the set. Neil Haynes’ design places the action inside a perspex box with clearly visible bars at the front separating us from the action. The set itself is a bare room – just anonymous chairs and tables – but the effect of that box is to make us feel that an attempt is being made to contain the evil, and keep us separate from it. By forcing us to be constantly aware of a physical barrier between Stengl and us, the design allows us to see that the psychological barrier we have erected is equally artificial. The play is not interested in Stengl as an isolated monster, to be kept separate from the rest of humanity; instead, it asks us to recognise that potential for evil in all of us, perhaps because only by acknowledging it can we hope to prevent it from happening again.
In keeping with this interpretation is the character of Stengl himself. Cliff Burnett’s performance is almost embarrassingly ordinary, not a simple monster we can dismiss, not exceptionally cruel or even exceptionally intelligent. Just an ordinary person who, when he actually gives explanations for his behaviour, turns out to have reasons that are frighteningly mundane, even familiar. Initially, he is frightened for his family, for his life, for his job. Ultimately, he has desensitised himself almost completely: he has learned not to think of those he is killing as people. Burnett's performance is impressive, especially in the many understated moments in which only his hands betray his emotion. Blythe Duff, as journalist Gitta Sereny, is also very strong: she puts horror into her performance but in such an understated way that the focus always remains with Burnett. The one exception to this, when we really are allowed to see her reaction, is profoundly moving partly because she hasn't shown it before.
In all, this is an extremely disturbing, thoughtful piece of theatre which balances the need for faithful representation with the requirements of live performance well.