CP Taylor’s 1981 play is a strange beast, the action tumbling through space and time as David Tennant’s professor John Halder recalls the events leading up to the Holocaust, for which he is accidentally, kind-of responsible for, in a roundabout way.
Halder is a literary professor in 1930s Germany who once wrote a novel about euthanizing a fictional version of his own mother, whose dementia was seriously getting on his wick. None other than the fuhrer himself read it and thought it was a bloody good justification for humanely off-ing those whose lives are no longer worth living, such as people with terminal illnesses and the Jews. Wait, what?
Good isn’t so much the story of a good man doing evil things, as a regular, self interested man rationalising his increasingly evil actions as ‘good’. Halder is affable, certainly, even charming in a bumbling, academic kind of way. He’s a good husband, up until the point when he leaves his depressed wife for one of his students. He’s a good companion to his Jewish psychoanalyst friend, until he joins the Nazis and helps lay the groundwork for the Final Solution.
His descent into evil is incremental. One minute he’s joining The Party because it’s best for his career, then he’s organising book burnings, which are bad, obviously, but perhaps symbolise a fresh start? And eventually he’s signing off on the extermination of an entire race, because if he doesn’t someone else probably will.
When he eventually changes into his leather SS officer uniform on stage, it’s the perfect embodiment of the banality of evil. He admits to a frisson of excitement as he pulls on his shiny knee-high boots and long leather jacket, but he’s more concerned about securing the keys to his now-probably-murdered friend’s holiday home.
The play’s structure is jarring at first, with changes in lighting resetting the supporting cast (Sharon Small and Elliot Levey), who play all the peripheral characters in Halder’s life. One minute Small may be playing Halder’s blind mother, the next his male superior in the SS, then his downtrodden wife.
But once you ease into the format, it becomes a smart way of cutting through the fat, resulting in a play that cruises through several years and multiple subplots without ever feeling laboured.
Tennant is well cast as Halder, with the actor’s inherent likability helping to sell the character’s elaborate attempts to justify his behaviour. Small and Levey are also excellent, the latter particularly good as the neurotic but lovable psychoanalyst whose worst fears turn out to be horribly real.
It ends with a reveal but one that doesn’t land with quite the impact it was clearly designed to, and the curtain falls to a feeling of mild bewilderment rather than an emotional gut punch. The result is a play that flirts with modern classic status, flying close to greatness, but ends up being merely good.