A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Finborough Theatre presents


In Quest of Conscience


by Gitta Sereny
Adapted by Robert David MacDonald
Directed by Rachel Heyburn


Finborough Theatre


Sundays and Mondays


12 – 27 June 2011



‘Survival, always survival: I had to limit my own actions to what I, in my conscience, could answer for.’ So argues Franz Stangl, played by Patrick Buchan, who is chilling in his ordinariness and modulated response. Stangl is the man who oversaw the mass extermination of 100,000 physically and mentally handicapped people under the Nazi’s T-4 Euthanasia Programme at Sobibor, and was ultimately responsible for the deaths of 900,000 people at Treblinka in 1942. 

In Quest of Conscience is a dramatisation of the interviews that Gita Sereny, author of Mary Bell and Albert Speer, conducted with Stangl while he was in Dusseldorf Prison. ‘I want to know how you see yourself as a human being?’ This dramatic exploration is also about us: how do you rationalise the actions of individuals who are responsible for the deaths of so many?

Outside of the dispassionate, clinical probing of Sereny, expertly played by Phillipa Peak, is the probity of Stangl’s conscience-stricken wife, Thea Stangl, convincingly played by Siobhan Harrison, as she attempts to make sense of the depth of her husband’s involvement at Treblinka. She seeks out a Catholic priest who tells her ‘he would do the same.’ Thea Stangl is left to make sense of things as best she can, ultimately likening the deaths to those of soldiers at war. Harrison also plays the female chorus; Peter Knowles plays the male chorus. Together they flesh out other parts where necessary, such as Stangl’s nemeses Prohaska and Wirt, personnel of the T-4 programme or prisoners. Otherwise the drama is driven by the central protagonists, Sereny and Stangl. Yet the dramatisation is at its best when it contrasts Stangl’s testimony with other cross-cut accounts.

Stangl’s defence is that he did his duty to protect his family from degradation, and possible death. His pragmatic response was to make everything run like clockwork. He walked about Treblinka in a white suit, which earned him the soubriquet ‘The White Death.’ He later recounts a chilling story in which he permits a kitchen worker, Blau, to give his elderly father a hearty meal before taking him to Lazarett, ostensibly a clinic, rather than the gas chamber. At Lazarett people were shot in the back of the head. Blau returns to say that the job is done and thanks him. Stangl’s response is one of pride: ‘I enjoyed human relations’, he adds without a hint of irony. This is the only time we see Gita Sereny breakdown, unable to control her emotions. It is a striking, dramatic moment. 

In Quest of Conscience tries to show the man, not explain what he did. Stangl talks about his childhood, running through snow in slippers, his love of the zither, and how he became a master weaver. We latch on to these human moments, because we need to hang on to something.

The soundscore is atmospheric consisting of tape rewinds, prison doors, trains and Nymanesque music. It is unsettling, disturbing, much like the piece itself. Director, Rachel Hayburn, puts in enough stage business to keep the pace fast, yet free-flowing. And the set by Florence McHugh, featuring many ladders, keeps the focus centre stage through a low-slung light and paper-strewn wooden table. 

Martin Buchan does a powerful job as Stangl, using an almost easy-going matter-of-factness to tell his story, except for when matters stray too near his family, then he almost becomes unhinged. His developing trust in Sereny is the arc of the play. And through its episodic, fragmentary structure, there is a reconciliation of sorts.  His guilt, he says at the end, is that he is still here. Sereny asks him if he means that he did not have the courage to die. ‘You could put it like that,’ he adds…..

Sundays and Mondays 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27 June
7.30, 80 minutes with no interval
Tickets £13, £9 concessions
Box office 0844 847 1652


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