West End’s Great Play, Good

Elliot Levey and David Tennant in CP Taylor’s Good. Photograph: Johan Persson.

The London Theatre Review: West End’s Good

By Ross

If I am not for myself then who is for me?” This is the line and the main underlying thought process that lives deep inside CP Taylor’s fascinatingly intense play, Good, which was revived at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre in the fall of 2022. Lucky for me, I was able to find my way into seeing it during our typical, but long overdue theatre extravaganza trip to London, UK last November. I had no frame of reference walking in, basically drawn to the play by its star power, David Tennant, who after watching him (and the breathtakingly good Olivia Colman) in the magnificent “Broadchurch” over the pandemic lockdown, I couldn’t resist seeing Tennant live on stage. But it really was my fellow theatre junkie who knew the play from its run in Chicago, and definitively told me, “yes, we have to”.

The program, bought immediately upon arrival at the theatre, had some compelling power over me when we sat down and I started to flip through the pages. Inside, it had a “Timeline of the Nazis in Power” from 1933 to 1945, and with that history laid out before me, I knew we were in for an emotional ride. I just had no idea how this ride would play out, and just how good Good was going to be. Written by CP Taylor, a writer of more than seventy plays from Glasgow who died in 1981 at the age of 52, the fantastically constructed play is a slow dive into the corrupting of a ‘good’ soul. It’s a complicated compelling dynamic wrapped in a conceptualized unpacking that seems very fitting to the modern world we find ourselves living in.

The play starts out in 1933 and follows a man, Professor Halder, played gloriously by Tennant (Donmar/West End’s Lobby Hero) navigating his way through Germany during the years that follow as Nazism grows in power and influence. It’s about an intelligent man, who in an early scene is outraged when reading about a friendship that dissolved because of an outright dismissal and betrayal that occurred between Beethoven and Goethe, yet during Good Halder descends into his own brutal betrayal of the same dear friend he tells this story to. That friend, Halder’s best, seated by his side, is Maurice, played wonderfully by Elliot Levey (West End’s Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club). He is a well-off Jewish man feeling the threat of the Third Reich breathing down his neck and is turning to his friend for understanding and possibly some assistance. The friendship is clear, but the response is more complicated than good.

The German professor seems unbothered by the threat, at least that’s what he vocalizes, telling his friend not to worry, and that it will all soon pass. We understand why he says that, especially today, after all we have witnessed in the last few years in America. Halder doesn’t see it as clearly as we do, never acknowledging the rise of antisemitism, nor its threat, mainly because it does not have its eyes focused on him. The play hangs in that realm, a place we can easily connect to, as we watch this ‘good’ man sidestep the obvious. He wants and likes his situation, and is determined, subtly, to find his way through, navigating the system while continually discounting what is happening around him, to himself, and to his friend. He’s a ‘good’ man, he keeps telling himself, but we can’t help but notice his simple, passive slide into nazism, even if he can’t see it himself. Or is it that he doesn’t want to because he’s benefiting from his own denial?

Elliot Levey, David Tennant, and Sharon Small in CP Taylor’s Good. Photograph: Johan Persson.

Surrounded on all sides by a stellar cast that includes the magnificently subtle Sharon Small (Donmar’s The Trials) as Helen (and numerous other well-crafted parts), Good digs itself in deep, unpacking the fascinating blind conversion of a man into a Nazi, one step at a time, shredding apart his consciousness and exposing his feverish denial of what he himself is doing. It’s chilling and disturbing, to say the least, as the confinement is accentuated by a grey-walled enclosure created with a strength of knowledge by set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer (NT’s The Threepenny Opera), with compelling lighting by Zoe Spurr (Old Red Lion’s Tiny Dynamite) and a strong sound design by Tom Gibbons (YoungVic/West End’s Best of Enemies). It walls us into the confined space, like a cell without air, tightening itself around those souls as history presents itself in hidden compartments aflame with hatred and violence.

As laid out by director Dominic Cooke (National Theatre’s Follies), the reveals and the atrocities hang in the air, infecting the three main actors as they live, breathe, and ride out this psychological descent with precision. The scenes shift and morph before our eyes, as we watch the moralities of the professor slip off his shoulders with one rationalization after another. One minute he is dining with his friend Maurice, and soon after he has enlisted in the Nazi party. Music, arranged and composed by Will Stuart (Garrick’s The Drifters), also floats and unearths the headspace of Halder, strangely explaining and delivering forth ideas and abstract conceptualizations etched in burnt threads of music and literature. The added layers of rationalizations and survival instincts are played out in tonal jazz and classical music, until the crash and burn come with a vengeance.

The bareness and the bland tones play with our senses, keeping us solely centered on the fine actors inhabiting that small space. It forces us to stay tuned in, even as we become more uncomfortable. Good lays out a compelling argument and sampling, drenching the characters in desperation and betrayal. Tennant is impossibly good, holding us tight to his chest as he listens to banned music and reads the books he is burning outside his door. We want to pull away from him, but we have a hard time disconnecting from his authenticity, even as we watch him betray, passively, his best friend when he needs him the most. The rationale is heart-breaking and brutal but etched in a kind of authenticity that is difficult to breathe in.

Levey as the lovable Maurice delivers the friendship forward, even as desperation and silence take him under. We can’t look away in these moments when windows and lives are smashed and broken around the two. It’s a horrific betrayal to take in, fascinating and disturbing in every sense. Yet, Halder is simply doing what he is told to do, which, he feels, he must do, in order to survive this moment. He is an active member of the party, while reminding himself over and over again that he is not antisemitic, and ultimately a ‘good’ man. We hear that, but it doesn’t hang well on him as we also know he still joined the SS and carried out their/his orders. And he has benefited from them more and more, as we watch the man, step by step, climb up that Nazi ladder. All while the band played on.

The reveal shows itself, finally, dressing itself up before our eyes, and delivering the final few punches that hit hard on our conscious understanding. But to see it clearly before us is another thing, and one we can’t find any way to deny what’s right there in black and red, and striped gray. Tennant and Small convey the message solidly in the finale, reassuring themselves of something that doesn’t sit well in our hearts. Good wants us to take that in, and understand the ideological stance that can turn someone into something horrifically bad, someone blind to what’s happening because it serves them well to see the world this way. It happened in Nazi Germany, and it is raising its ugly hand now in the rise of populism in different areas of the world. And if we can’t see it building around us, and call it out, will we have the strength to stand up against it when the time comes? Or maybe before it even fully gets here. That’s the question of the ages. Halder puts forth that initial question, quoting from the Talmud. “If I am not for myself, then who is for me?” and we can see exactly how easily a betrayal can grow up from that stance. If we let it. And boy, I hope we do find the courage the next time it is required.

David Tennant and Sharon Small in CP Taylor’s Good playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, UK until January 7, 2023. Photograph: Johan Persson.

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