In his new play Ian Kennedy Martin explores an intriguing side of World War Two, focusing on the difficulties and moral dilemmas of treading the high wire of neutrality whilst war rages around you.
The programme notes for Berlin Hanover Express delve into a less frequently discussed aspect of the 20th century’s second bloody war: the position of Ireland, whose government took a neutral stance while its old enemies, Britain, fought the new European threat, Nazi Germany. But though the country’s official line did not alter throughout the war, the approach of individuals within that country was more nuanced. Martin explores these nuances through a scenario that plays out in the office of the Irish legation in Berlin in 1942 and asks: can any individual truly remain indifferent to deplorable crimes committed by one side or the other during a time of war?
The question is asked of two Irish diplomats, playboy jokester O’Kane and the older, hard-working Mallin, who share an office – much to Mallin’s dismay – in war-torn Berlin. A fragile harmony is maintained in this little pocket of neutrality; the pair’s work can be sent, unobstructed, back to head office in Dublin, as long as they take seriously Germany’s claims that an Irishman known to them could be spying for the British. The local Nazi official, Kollvitz, is indulged as long as he continues to bring them the best food and wine, but he must not cross an unspoken line.
But already the situation is tenuous, if not slightly ridiculous. The war is referred to by the Irish as merely an ‘emergency’ and the Nazis’ increasingly reported treatment of the Jews and other enemies as ‘internal security’. When Kollvitz brings those barbaric policies into the Irish legation itself, through his treatment of their demure cook Christe, the Irish pair can no longer sit on the metaphorical fence. When it comes down to it, the playwright suggests, doing nothing is doing something.
Based entirely in designer Paul Farnsworth’s sepia-toned office, Berlin Hanover Express contextualises the action by interspersing, between scenes, real footage of Berlin during the war, including fresh faced members of the Hitler Youth at a rally and the destruction of the capital’s streets following Allied bombing raids.
Owen McDonnell as jack-the-lad O’Kane is best at pacifying his German hosts while increasingly railing against them; Isla Carter, as Christe, shows the devastating choices faced by those German citizens who find themselves hunted by their own leaders; but it is Sean Campion, as the firmly neutral Mallin, who illustrates the internal moral struggles faced by those loyal to a neutral country that does not yet know the outcome of the war, nor the true depths of the Nazis’ wickedness.