Being wanted is an incredibly intoxicating feeling and militaristic societies thrive on the notion of inclusion. Veterans and historians write a great deal about comradeship in the armed forces which in any era binds men together and helps them to fight for a set of ideals even if they don’t fully embrace them. But being part of it, being included, being on the inside of an elite group can carry normal men a long way. C. P. Taylor’s play Good, written in 1981 is about the easy slide into extremism, how a decidedly ordinary, peaceable even tolerant man with no obvious belief in the outcomes of Nazism can actively choose to join and then rise through the ranks to exert a kind of doctrinal influence. And the reason is the thrill of being wanted, of belonging and of being welcomed with open arms even by the leader himself.
Taylor’s play has a complex construction, one that makes several demands of an audience as it cuts back and forth in time, blurring conversations happening with different people and at different times in academic John Halder’s life. Taylor smashes them together in really interesting ways, placing John at the centre of several interlocking and decisive events that take him towards Party membership initially and then full collusion. The notion implied by the play’s title (one of many interpretations of its meaning) that he is a ‘good’ man is challenged immediately and Taylor asks some philosophical questions about the characteristics of goodness and the balance of behaviours that determine whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, the childlike simplicity of which Taylor also challenges.
The happy family scenario that the audience is presented with – of Halder’s home life with a chaotic but devoted wife and unseen children he claims to love dearly – strike a false note when he immediately suggests to friend Maurice that he only says the words for effect, for his own sake, as though requiring an anchor to steady his other impulses about which he yet knows or expects nothing. But there is a lingering doubt in Halder from the start that his instincts try to protect him from.
And soon Taylor is provoking the audience’s perception of John again with the arrival of a young student that Halder is drawn to almost in spite of himself, professing love for his wife but hardly resisting the girl about whom he speaks openly. It becomes a familiar characteristic of John’s journey through life that he flows easily from one state to another, jettisoning his old life as though it never existed in favour of a new one, never resisting or denying himself the things he is freely offered. From here across nearly two hours of performance we experience the slow degrees of assimilation and acceptance of the extraordinary as the norm as well as the incremental deconstruction of any humanity external to John’s own immediate feeling.
The concept recurs repeatedly, first in a lecture he gives on the primacy of the self in literature rather than the community-first notion that Nazism espouses which evolves into an Anti-Semitic rejection of Jewish scholars and creatives. Later, John’s failure to feel or prioritise anxieties beyond those immediately affecting his personal life becomes quite stark as the 1930s wears on and his Jewish friend is increasingly endangered. That few of us have the capacity to think about broader social ills while balancing our own troubles is Taylor’s all to pertinent point but the very concept of goodness becomes a nonsense in the reductive simplicity of its impossibly selfless characteristics. We see it eroded one step at a time by John’s desire for inclusion and respect from the State as well as the separation that the Professor of Literature acknowledges between his inner self and the public man.
The word ‘good’ becomes then a crucial pivot point throughout the play, littering the text with a deliberate emphasis as characters seek to reassure themselves that they are good people or, more dangerously, that they are acting for the greater good, whatever that means at any given moment. Taylor gives John an internal monologue where he can explore this idea more fully which he exercises between and within conversations, sometimes as speeches to the audience and others asides to himself, reacing to his interlocutor privately in his mind and then often more blandly to their face. This becomes a place of increasing disinterest or detachment from the external world that grows and takes root in John despite being an active participant in the life he lives – John is not a man without agency.
This stream of consciousness frequently becomes an argument with himself, particularly about his feeling for Jewish friend Maurice who he is ambiguous towards as his own panic and fear drown out any empathy he may have for others. Likewise, his own mother whose growing disorientation as a result of senile dementia becomes an irritant to him and leads to a role in determining a drastic solution that this good man comes to believe is humane. By degrees, then, we see the good man John always believed himself to be was already deeply compromised long before he joined the SS, National Socialism merely speaks to something that already exists in him and makes John its tool.
Dominic Cooke’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre which has its press night later this week is an increasingly affecting experience, presented on a representative set that saves its biggest shocks for later in the play. A fluid experience as scenes merge with only a beat and a change of lighting between them, this production builds a slow tumbling energy, a collection of conversations and off-stage activities that reach a tipping point beyond which the protagonist is no longer the man he thinks he is or the easy figure we first met. Where he, crucially, passes a point of no return is less clear and this version of Taylor’s work leaves the audience to wonder whether this was always John’s destiny due to a character defect in all of us or that the accumulated experiences push him forwards on a wave of mob mentality within that crowd he was so keen to be part of.
Cooke is particularly good at finding the emotional subtext and thrum of a piece and here he finds the humanity in John. The director is especially interested in the gap between illusion and delusion, the way in which people cling to outmoded or unrealistic ideas of themselves and how their life could or should be, particularly when the memory of what you once were is not necessarily who you are now. And in that sense Cooke draws a direct line between characters like Sally in Follies and John here.
But this does not create a sense of artifice or romance in this interpretation of Good, and instead, designer Vicki Mortimer has produced a representational space, a blank room made seemingly of steel or dark stone in which what characters say and what they do are not aligned – drawing a key theme from the text. It feels like a hinterland between worlds and, as the actors are often shown to speak of actions then they do not perform, and while it is set in the lead up to the Second World War, the design choices suggest a wider applicability to this scenario and some universal truths about human nature in a period of conflict. While there are no obvious scene changes, the design slowly takes on the characteristics of brutality, stark rooms and chambers where lives were extinguished. Zoe Spurr’s lighting design instead becomes the tools of tone, atmosphere and relocation, suggesting cosy domestic spaces and dehumanised official ones, summer days in the garden and wintry afternoons in the park as the chilling effects of the play unfold, helping Cooke’s production to seamlessly change scenario as conversations blur and overlap.
Music too is essential to this vision which is part of Halder’s world view, hearing music in his head as reflections of the conversational mood he is involved with. The specificity of these is incredibly important as German band music with its upbeat pomp encourages John to join the Party, the smooth vocal qualities of the crooner take him towards another woman and, as the world darkens, the melancholy strings of Schubert plague him. Music is a psychological reflection of John’s feeling if not quite his conscience – and it is not at all clear in Taylor’s play that he is troubled much by conscience – so Will Stuart’s musical arrangement along with Tom Gibbons’s sound design create an important connection for the audience with the things we cannot see either because they are in John’s mind or they are not acted – the latter an interesting examination of culpability, as though the characters are divorced from their actions.
David Tennant’s return to the stage wasn’t meant to take so long and Good was originally programmed for 2020. But 5 years it has been. His John is full of contradictions exploring the surface detachment and the growing absorption into the Nazi Party that begins to shape the expectations he has of himself and the situations he is willing to put himself in. The connection to the First World War and his experience as a veteran is essential to his desire to feel that same kind of comradeship and belonging again, but there is a coldness in John that is fascinating, taking the idea of a good man to its extremes, although not necessarily to delusion in Tennant’s interpretation, and he suggests instead that John is ultimately no different to the rest of us who could so easily follow the same path.
The technical control of the different narrative strands is superb, switching in a second between scenes and character intention as John moves from the domestic to the official, from muted declarations of affection to evasive interactions with friends and SS leaders, while clearly demarcating the personal notes to self that are initially funny but eventually troubling. What is so interesting in Tennant’s performance here is the understanding and presentation of all the things that John is and becomes, the way he adapts himself to the company he keeps as well as the control and concealment of information that doesn’t suit the immediate moment, something he seems to do by instinct. But again John is reflecting all of us in this, the casual and guarded behaviour to friends and the public professional at work. That Tennant still makes this feel like one person, and someone evolving across the years of the play is extraordinary as the degrees of self-compromise and failure to truly know himself or want to resist the man he is becoming build to an affecting costume change in Good‘s concluding scenes that is chilling.
Sharon Small and Elliot Levey play everyone else in fragmented interactions with John over time. Both superb character actors, the physical transformation in stance and vocal style are pronounced, taking the audience into the surrounding lives of SS officers, Jewish friends, lovers and collaborators who, though distinct, feel somehow like John’s unengaged impressions of others that while not exactly caricatures are snippets of the reality he sees. And the way in which this intimate ensemble work together to maintain John’s point of view is very skilled.
People love to belong and it is far harder to resist the tide in practice than in theory. Taylor’s play is a warning that we are all capable of terrible deeds but they won’t overwhelm us all at once but take control slowly, moving us gently away from who we think we are. E.M. Forster wrote that having a choice between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped to have the courage to betray his country. Good is the story of those who don’t possess that courage and, as John abandons his friends to be accepted by the Party, his goodness is moot, and it becomes too late to stop him.