Afterlife encounter between two huge historical figures

Churchill and Hitler are two historical figures who, for very different reasons, are guaranteed to invoke some kind of emotional response in an audience, so in terms of dramatic effect putting the two men together in a play is a shrewd move. Debut playwright Tony Tortora’s new drama Churchill opened at the Carriageworks in Leeds this week and imagines an encounter between the two sworn enemies in the afterlife.

Michael Forrest as Hitler and Jeremy Dobbs as Churchill.   Photo: Matt Tullet
Michael Forrest as Hitler and Jeremy Dobbs as Churchill. Photo: Matt Tullet

The starting point for Tortora’s play came out of a real-life meeting that almost happened between Hitler and Churchill in Germany in 1932 before either man had come to power. “Churchill was in Munich doing research for his biography of Marlborough,” explains American-born Tortora. “Hitler took the initiative and asked for a meeting; they arranged a time but at some point between making the arrangement and the meeting taking place, Churchill was speaking to an associate of Hitler’s and said ‘Tell your boss for me that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad stayer’. That put Hitler’s nose out of joint so the meeting never happened.”

Tortora was fascinated by what might have been said had the two men met, but felt that what would be even more interesting would be to explore the kind of conversation that could have taken place once they had lived the whole of their lives.

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The play opens shortly after Churchill’s death in 1965 when he arrives in a place in which a servant describes as a way-station en route to an unknown final destination. After a brief period alone, he is suddenly thrust together with Hitler in a space that neither can leave.

Tortora, who was born and raised in New Jersey but now lives in Harrogate, moved to the UK in 1997 and wrote the play in 1998. It was taken up by Damien Crudden at York Theatre Royal and at one point Simon Callow was interested in playing the role of Churchill. “He invited me for lunch down in London and asked me if I minded if Antony Sher could be his co-star – well you can image my reply,” laughs Tortora.

Sadly, the project didn’t go any further until Leeds-based producer Brian Daniels took it forward with his company New End Theatre Beyond.

Richard Bonham, who has worked with Daniels before, is directing the play and has enjoyed exploring its themes.

“As Churchill and Hitler are such huge figures, it’s almost overwhelming to take the responsibility of putting them on stage. We have to treat them as characters – particularly with Hitler. He is the embodiment of evil and we had to find a way through that without ever humanising him or excusing the terror.” He says it has also been interesting looking at the twists and turns in the relationship between the two men and exploring their similarities as well as their differences. “There are moments of conflict but they are together long enough that they have to get along,” he says. “Did they have similar characteristics in order to become leaders of their nations? That, to me, is as interesting as the conflict.”

Bonham says he is looking forward to getting feedback to the play. “I think it might be quite divisive – people will have their own views on what a meeting between Churchill and Hitler might look like, but if we get people thinking and talking about that, then I think we will have done our job.”

Churchill is at the Carriageworks, Leeds to July 20. 0113 224 3801 or www.carriageworkstheatre.org.uk