Genuinely not wishing to be glib about it, but there is something fascinating about the way in which David Tennant has devoted so much of his post-‘Doctor Who’ career to exploring different aspects of human evil. From terrifying Marvel villain Kilgrave to serial killer Dennis Nilsen and his recent turn as a toxic vicar in ‘Inside Man’, at this stage it’s difficult to imagine this is simply him trying to avoid typecasting.
In that context, it’s easy to see why he’s so doggedly persisted with Dominic Cooke’s revival of CP Taylor’s 1981 play ‘Good’, which has twice been postponed by the pandemic.
It follows John Halder (Tennant), a liberal German professor with a Jewish best friend – Elliott Levey’s Maurice – and a fragile wife – Sharon Small’s Anne – plus sundry extra characters played by Levey and Small. The action begins in Frankfurt, 1933, as John and Maurice try to convince each other that Nazi antisemitism will burn itself out soon. Maurice is scared; John simply finds it illogical.
He has options, though: in order to ‘get on’, he joins the Nazis, reasoning that he’ll leave if he’s ever asked to do anything he feels uncomfortable with. He assures the terrified Maurice that he’s overreacting, and that even if he had the power to get him out of the country, he wouldn’t see the need.
It’s not so much a play about the banality of evil – that old cliche – as the apathy of evil, the hypocrisy of evil. The title refers to the fact John is a ‘good’ man… but is he? In Tennant’s portrayal there’s always a hole where there should be a conscience. His John drifts through life unbothered about cheating on Anne, unsympathetic to his ailing mother: he even writes a novel in which he essentially fantasises about having her euthanised. He complains to Maurice that he always hears distracting music in his head when he should be engaging with other people.
As John indifferently drifts into the upper echelons of the Third Reich, his moral vacuum becomes a protective cushion. He doesn’t mind burning books so long as he keeps his own private copies of them, something his new, jazz-loving SS pal Freddie is totally fine with.
Taylor’s play is a potent vision of a society slipping into fascism. Without wishing to minimise the utter horror of the outcome, it’s not hard to see its continued relevance today: there are echoes of John in Russians who don’t support the invasion of Ukraine, but accept it, or British politicians who blandly accept stupid, cruel refugee policies so they’re not seen as weak.
Four decades on and some of it feels a bit unsubtle, especially a strand that ties the fictional John directly to the real Final Solution. It’s also a slightly messy play: having the three actors constantly switching between roles – often mid-dialogue – feels endlessly fiddly, especially early on.
But it grows in power, and Tennant really is terrific. As I said, the man knows a thing or two about portraying evil; his performance is perfectly judged. He never tries to sell us John as a nice guy: the emptiness is always there. I’ll be honest and say it feels a little familiar – I think you probably do feel a little more detached, a little less certain about things as you hit middle age. It’s disturbing that John doesn’t care enough about those he professes to love to try and save them; but it’s equally disturbing that he has so little investment in the murderous regime that he is a part of. Is he an unusual case? =CP Taylor’s most chilling inference is that we all might be susceptible to fascism if our society turns fascist.
If the point of Tennant’s performance is his lack of emotion, then Levey and Small are there to provide the fireworks. They do it splendidly in their roles as vulnerable people who lack John’s ability – privilege, I suppose – to simply blend in with Germany’s quesily lurching society.
It was made today, I daresay ‘Good’ would lose a Third Reich cliche or two. But in Cooke’s taut, claustrophobic production, that scarcely matters: it still has the power to chill you to the bone.