Monday, 8 February 2010

Bernice Summerfield: Just War

There are some who say this could be the best production Big Finish have, and will ever, make. I hope that’s not true. It would be a shame if it was all downhill from the millennium onwards, but I can see where they’re coming from. Lisa Bowerman is on top form, Stephen Fewell actually gets something meaty to throw Jason at and, my most common gripe with this series, the bad guys are spot on.

It’s fair to say actually that the Nazi’s are the heart and soul of the play. It represents a dream, an idea and a belief. It doesn’t judge, not too harshly. Here the Third-Reich is proven evil by the fact they hurt people, but they’re not the only ones to do it. During the story both Bernice and Jason get to bloody their conscience, only they’re convinced they did it for the right reasons…

There are five Nazi’s of note and each of them has something important to offer the story. No corners are cut in their portrayal, starting with two young men completely taken in by the Fuhrer’s propaganda, who don’t actually know what war really is. Simon Moore’s Gerhard is perfectly loveable, if a little dim. A low ranking, well intentioned German who mistakenly thinks he can make friends amongst the locals. He doesn’t mean any harm, and his shocking and abrupt death could rank as the most important fatality in Big Finish history. It justifies so much of this play…

Anthony Keech plays a similar young man, Gerhard’s best friend who spends the second half of the play attempting to come to terms with his loss. His scenes with Maggie Stables, clearing out the last of the dead man’s things from the hotel, are heartbreaking on both sides.

Meanwhile Mark Gatiss throws his all into Standardtenfuhrer Joachim Wolff, exactly the kind of sadistic Nazi villain you’d expect from the movies. Mark clearly enjoys putting his best menacing voice into the production, and certain scenes with Wolff will make the hairs on the back of your neck curl. He’s accompanied by the slightly more scrupulous Nurse Rosa Kitzel, played by Nicky Golding. The two make an effective double act, and there’s a particularly powerful scene where a terrified, helpless Bernice asks Nurse Kitzel if she really believes that she deserves to be tortured.
The response is chilling.

But all of these characters exist primarily to serve beneath Oberst Oskar Steinmann, in what should be an award winning performance by Michael Wade. Oskar is a practical, believable man who initially appears to be sympathetic, almost friendly to Bernice and Jason. Beneath that calm, approachable exterior though lurks a heart of stone. He has love for his country, ambition for his ideals and logic is on his side. Steinmann’s committed belief in what he does, and constant rationalisation for fascism is truly terrifying. He gets what is probably the most important line of the play when he explains to Bernice why he doesn’t believe her story: “If you were really from the future, then you would be a German.”
He knows that what he does hurts people, and that that makes it distasteful. But he knows, in every fibre of his being, that he does it for the right reasons.

Without spoiling the plot too much, Just War is set almost entirely in occupied Guernsey. I’ve never been to Guernsey so I can’t comment on the accents, but they don’t hinder the experience. It is rare though to see a play about the occupation which tells you more about the occupiers than the oppressed. This story is unflinching both physically and emotionally, and the observation that Bernice makes is true; she’s never in more danger than when it’s other humans who are trying to kill her. She can’t escape… and she can’t do anything to alter the situation because that would alter history. She’s helpless and she’s just completely lost the moral high ground.
To the Nazi’s.
Who would have through it?
10 / 10

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