“I’ve been in jail longer than some of you have been alive”, shouts a pyjama-clad Rudolph Hess, showering the front row with spittle and pure evil. Of all the hours of theatre at this year’s Fringe, Michael Burrell’s Hess is surely one of the most intensely serious. For an hour, the once Deputy Führer of the Third Reich ruminates, postulates and, most interestingly, hesitates his way through an account of the events that led him to a life of imprisonment in an English jail. It’s disturbing, challenging and dark, but never makes quite as much impact as it should, probably because the subject matter carries so much weight that it’s hard to find a way in to Hess’s head that doesn’t involve outright hatred.
The script therefore is at best heavy-going, and at worse too dense to get off the ground. Thankfully actor Derek Crawford Munn brings a complex and nuanced sensibility that makes his Hess endlessly interesting to watch, in spite of the character being essentially emotionally and morally inaccessible. His delivery is faultless and always arresting: the line “we did not wish for war, but for victory” is spoken with the venom of a violent psychopath and the sweetness of a hopeful, kind old man, and the effect is chilling. His outbursts are well pitched, as are his tortured flashbacks, as the fragility of human grief and the horror of ideological dogma collide before our eyes.
It’s certainly a powerful and interesting production, but it only amasses limited routes of access for an audience. A challenging script comes to bold and intriguing life in talented hands, but it doesn’t have the legs for much else.