Theatre: Bringing justice where Nuremberg failed

TOWARDS THE end of Esther Vilar's fascinating, fictitious two- hander about Albert Speer now receiving its British premiere, Bauer, the other character, "quotes" Erich Honecker. Speaking of former Nazi survivors, Honecker has allegedly said, "Only the ones without shame go on television to parade their regret. The ones who are really ashamed just shut up."

It's particularly telling given that the real Albert Speer lived on for almost 15 years after being released from 20 years in Spandau prison for Nazi war crimes. During those latter years he was endlessly interviewed, largely in response to his two published bestsellers, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau, The Secret Diaries. Vilar's play, set in 1980 and directed by and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, uses the invented character of Bauer, a senior East German official, to ask Speer the crucial unanswered questions. After all, despite his intense, personal proximity to Hitler as the architect of the planned world capital of Germania and then as Minister for Armaments - in effect, his complete control of the German economic war effort - Speer saved his neck at Nuremberg, chiefly by convincing the judges that he did not know of the horrific, premeditated policy of eradicating Europe's gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped and, most specifically, the Jews.

Bauer, like many, was unconvinced by Speer's testimony. Speer returns to the hall which formerly housed his General Building Inspectorate where he is due to give a lecture about his architecture. Not only is the vast, enveloping back wall of the Almeida stage a perfect setting for this, the entire situation mirrors the fact that just hours before his death, Speer was being interviewed about his architecture at the BBC.

At one point in the published text, there's a reference to Gitta Sereny's masterly, hypnotic biography of Speer and it's fair to say that Vilar's play is indebted to Sereny's work. She even shares Sereny's almost thriller- like sense of pace as Bauer quietly and cunningly lays traps to get at the truth behind Speer's story.

The final damning evidence of Speer's unacknowledged complicity is drawn from Sereny's painstaking research but is none the less dramatic for that. In the second half, after Speer's complicity in the murder of the Jews and his unacknowledged anti-semitism has been "proved", Bauer offers Speer the chance to rebuild the economically shattered East Germany. This proposition provides a real dramatic lift and asks wider questions about authoritarian political regimes, both left- and right-wing. Also, Speer's complex response reveals far more about his feelings than the earlier, occasionally clumsy, detective-like drawing out of known facts.

Ultimately, the strength of Speer lies in the scrupulous, magnetic performances. Both actors are supremely relaxed, which makes them utterly compelling to watch. Given that both are performing in a foreign language, it is even more impressive. The controlled formality of Sven Eric Bechtolf's panther-like Bauer is belied by his easy wit and he's more than matched by Brandauer. His eerily meticulous Speer is completely convincing, radiating the true heat of power by boldly and calmly taking all the time in the world.

Even without the urgent morality underpinning the play, their grippingly understated performances alone would guarantee its theatrical life.

To 27 March (0171-359 4404)