Battle with truth

What happens to history when it's put on stage? Nina Raine compares recent productions of Shakespea

Night. 16 October, 1946. Ten convicted Nazis are hanged in the gymnasium of Nuremburg prison. The next day, Hess, Schirach and Speer are taken to mop the gymnasium floor. A symbolic gesture, given that it has already been washed. There is just one dark, stubborn stain that won't go. Rudolph Hess clicks his heels, raises his arm in the Hitler Grub, and salutes the stain.

Stage directions to die for. And you can find them in Gitta Sereny's book Albert Speer: his battle with truth. But in David Edgar's Speer, which has recently opened at the National Theatre in London, we're told only that they washed the floor. The final, crucial detail is cut. One can understand why. Sereny's book is 750 pages of sprawling, rich and, above all, disputed history. Edgar has three and a half hours of stage time. Some details have to go. Yet it is details that make history vivid. So how does one tailor history for the stage?

Take Shakespeare - the Histories are currently showing at Stratford and Richard II is at the Gainsborough Studios - and two problems emerge. The first is scale: battles, nations, revolutions . . . The Chorus in Henry V begs us:

to admit th' excuse
Of time, of numbers, and due course of things,
Which cannot in their huge and proper life
Be here presented.

The other is the inherently aorist nature of history. It's passed. It is the past. We know the ending of the story. How to make its mystery, its gestalt, live again?

Shakespeare's Histories and Speer's own story share a vision of the volatility of history. It lives still because it is unfixed, endlessly subject to reinterpretation. It is changed according to the character analysing it. Not only then, but now - most strikingly in the case of Speer, who denied knowledge of the Final Solution.

In Richard II, John of Gaunt advises exiled Bolingbroke: "Think not the King did banish thee,/But thou the King." Perspective is everything. The first character to enter the stage in Henry IV Part II is Rumour. Under Rumour's licence, it is the forcefully vocal opportunists who profit - such as the rebel leader Jack Cade, who seizes history and tells it the way he wants: "Away! burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the Parliament of England." History as it takes place is notoriously chaotic and vulnerable to appropriation. With rare frankness, Henry V, spattered with the gore of Agincourt, pants: "I tell thee truly, herald,/I know not if the day be ours or no."

Years afterwards, these murky events become even more malleable. Henry V shrewdly predicts that the soldier who fights with him on St Crispin's Day will "remember, with advantages/What feats he did that day". There is a more sinister moment in Richard III, when Buckingham regrets that Hastings was killed before he had made a public confession. He is comforted by the Mayor, who says: "your grace's word shall serve/As well as I had seen and heard him speak." They will put their own words into the dead man's mouth, exactly like the historian Erich Goldhagen. Goldhagen made his own addendum - incriminating Speer - to the infamous Posen speech in which Himmler outlined the Final Solution. Goldhagen quoted Himmler as saying: "Speer and I together will tear the last Jew alive on Polish ground out of the hands of the army generals, send them to their death and thereby close the chapter of Polish Jewry." But Himmler never said those exact words. This was Goldhagen's gloss on Himmler's speech. The editor of Goldhagen's article put them in quotation marks, as verbatim from Himmler. Goldhagen "never got round to correcting it". Speer had previously claimed that he was not even present at the meeting. Another dark, stubborn stain of history - which remains insoluble.

The scene in which Speer is charged with having been present at that meeting is one of the most powerful and realistic in Edgar's play. Lights come up on the audience: Speer is giving a placid lecture to university students. A heckler, planted in the stalls, demands that Speer read aloud Himmler's speech. "You were there," he shouts. For a moment I thought a lunatic was in the audience. Speer's humiliation and panicky denial were acutely painful to watch. And still one didn't know if he was telling the truth.

This is the dramatic appeal of Speer's story: our psychological interest in the man. Could he really not have known about the final fate of the Jews? What exactly was the relationship between him and Hitler? His friend Hettlage once said to him: "You know what you are? You are Hitler's unhappy love." The interest lies in the contradictory, layered nature of his emotions. Speer said himself that he found it impossible "to separate, to classify in retrospect . . . my reactions and feelings". Deeply remorseful now, and admirably honest, he admitted: "If one reads my ministry's Chronik, one can see how very minor a matter were 60,000 concentration-camp workers or two million foreigners among . . . the 28 million workers altogether. I'm not happy to face it . . . but . . . I didn't see or think of them as human beings, as individuals."

Exactly. History is real for us only when we see the individuals it involves. Historical events are set in motion by real people, by simple personality clashes, such as the scratchiness between Hotspur and Glendower in Henry IV Part I. The giants are actually human, although they may try to create their own myths. Glendower (played by Rowland Davies in the RSC production - a marvellous cross between Jabba the Hut and Dave Gilmour) claims that "the front of heaven was full of fiery shapes" at his birth. To which the unimpressed Hotspur flatly replies: "I think there's no man speaks better Welsh. I'll to dinner." Human huffiness, then, can affect the course of history. Flaschner said of Goring: "I think he had been jealous of Speer for years . . . It really is extraordinary if one thinks how much these huge historical events were influenced by such emotions."

It is these bathetic glimpses of ordinary emotions that make the players psychologically real. They offer the most compelling moments both in Speer and in Shakespeare's Histories. There is Richard II's irrational jealousy, for instance, when he hears that his beloved horse, "roan Barbary", ridden by Bolingbroke on his coronation day, went "proudly". The disloyalty is almost sexual in its force. Consider also Speer's wife, when she was asked if she had read Speer's memoirs: "The bits about Eva Braun I have. He seemed quite taken with her. She always struck me as rather bossy and pretentious." Or the Yorks, who squabble embarrassingly in front of the King over their treacherous son, his mother pleading for pardon, York shushing her. Steven Pimlott's Richard II brilliantly highlighted the humdrum domesticity of this row - the Duke in slippers, his wife dressed head to toe in Marks & Spencer clothes.

History is best told through personalities. Not just the history - but the back-history of that history. Shakespeare brings the past (of Henry VI) on to the stage in Richard III in the figure of the cursing Queen Margaret - illustrating how the bitter taste of history persists and then persists. Similarly, Edgar shows Speer at a book signing - pounced on by his estranged, unreconstructed Nazi friend Rudi Wolters, who accuses him of hypocrisy, denying his past self. The past has come back to haunt him. History personified.

Unfortunately, most of Speer fails to transform history into theatre. The story is told as it is in Sereny's book - essentially as reminiscence. But instead of Speer confiding to Sereny, there are endless asides ("It was the first time I had heard Hitler speak . . ."), as poor Alex Jennings (playing Speer) struggles into yet another coat demanded by the impressively kaleidoscopic changing of scenes.

The greatest pity is the play's conclusion. In delirium, Speer sobs "I knew. I knew" - a facile coup de theatre, at the cost of falsifying Speer's complex character. What he actually said, in a profile for Die Zeit magazine, was much more guarded, typically subtle. "I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews." Even then, he quibbled over the translation of Billigung, glossing it as "looking away". This is more complex, more accurate and, perhaps, even more subtly damning than the statement "I knew". It implies that Speer felt guilty enough at the time to "look away" from what he sensed, rather than confront it, and yet did nothing to assuage that guilt. As a result, he was unable to reconcile himself to his past self, as the man who once "looked away". In his fall, Richard II identifies exactly what Speer suffered:

Oh that I could forget what I have been
Or not remember what I must be now!

What this elicits from the reader is a more complicated sympathy - for someone who is not immediately likeable. Ultimately, the characters that are most compelling are those who refuse to play the game, even while they sense that they are being judged by history - such as Richard II as played by Ralph Fiennes: mulish, awkward, handing over his crown with as much ill grace as he can muster, and thoroughly embarrassing everyone in the process.

The truth is always awkward. But the kangeroo court of history is always there, too - jumping to conclusions. Like the judge in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, who sentences Neville Chamberlain to "perpetual ignominy". Those sentences - resonant, dogmatic, glib, irresistible, self-satisfied - are the enemy of drama.

Speer is at the Lyttleton Theatre, London, until 8 July.Richard II is at the Gainsborough Studios, London, until 22 July. Richard II is at The Other Place, Stratford, until 5 October. Henry IV Part I is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until 6 October. Henry IV Part II is at the Swan Theatre from 21 June to 7 October. Henry V is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, from 24 August to 7 October