Of all the quotes attributed to the hard- drinking Irish Republican playwright Brendan Behan, who once described himself as a drinker with a writing problem, perhaps the most fondly remembered is his response to being condemned to death in absentia for his subversive activities.
“I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence. So I said they could shoot me in my absence as well.”
The story comes to mind while talking to the Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky whose Holocaust play The White Factory opens this week. Best known as a novelist — his dystopian book Metro 2033 has been translated into 40 languages —Glukhovsky is a vocal critic of Putin.
Matthew Spencer, James Garnon and Mark Quartley in The White Factory (Photo: Mark Senior)
Last month he was found guilty of spreading false information by a Russian court. His sentence was eight years in prison.
However, fortunately for Glukhovsky, he has been living in exile since Putin invaded Ukraine. So it seems appropriate to say that if the Russian courts sentenced Glukhovsky in absentia, they can imprison him in absentia too.
For obvious reasons he can’t say where he is living. “I prefer not to disclose personal family information about myself,” says Glukhovsky when we meet on Zoom.
“I am getting unexpected attention from the Russian state,” he explains. “I have been declared a foreign agent for just calling the war a war and speaking about Russian war crimes. It gives you more freedom to express yourself when you give fewer details about your private life.”
All this is linked to Glukhovsky’s play in unexpected ways. Directed by the acclaimed Russian director Maxim Didenko, who is also living in exile after publicly criticising his government, the play is set largely in the Lodz Ghetto.
It follows the fate of the fictional Jewish Austrian lawyer Yosef Kaufmann (Mark Quarterly), his wife Rivke (Pearl Chanda) and their children as they and their fellow Jews become fodder for the killing machine created by the real-life Nazi commander Wilhelm Koppe. On the page at least, the play does not shrink from dramatising the savage cruelty Jews suffered in Poland during the war.
“I was born in 1979. Back then, we didn’t have any particular chapter on the Holocaust in our history books. We still don’t. The tragedy of the Jewish people was the tragedy of the Soviet people,” says Glukhovsky.
Actress Pearl Chanda in rehearsal for The White Factory (Photo: Mark Senior)
This became an issue for the Moscow-raised Glukhovksy in 1992 when, at the age of 13, he had to fill out a form for his Russian ID card, an administrative exercise that entailed stating his ethnicity.
“My father said we have to talk. I want to tell you that you have a choice. You’re not only Russian because actually I am Jewish.”
Glukhovsky’s initial response was one of alarm. He was aware of the prevailing antisemitism of the day. “I was like, ‘F*** no!’” he says.
But although he put “Russian” on his identity card that day in 1992, his initial alarm soon turned to curiosity about his Jewishness. And just a few years later, he moved to Israel where he studied at Jerusalem University.
“In Israel I felt Israeli and had a great solidarity with Israel. I still do, 100 per cent.
"But the feeling of being culturally or ethnically Jewish took me much longer. I’ve now come to the conclusion that in the modern world you don’t have to choose between identities.
"You can have multiple identites, be a compositiion of who you actually are.”
He sees his play, which he began writing five years ago, as very much an exploration of his Jewishness.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the way he views the work. Now, says the dissident and political fugitive, it is also a commmentary on “the abrupt transformation of my country into a fascist dictatorship”.
His many trips to Poland, where his books are very popular, have also steered its writing, he says.
Oliver King, producer of The White Factory (Photo: Mark Senior)
“At first, I was stunned to see how preserved Lodz is,” he says. “Then I started reading Hannah Arendt who wrote about Willhelm Koppe, the Nazi who established the conveyor belt of death in Poland.
He wasn’t tracked down after the war and he ended up running a chocolate factory in his home city of Bonn.
“I was stunned by this: how you can exterminate people and then make chocolate?”
The moral landscape of the play is more complex than one might expect. Like Our Class, the harrowing play by Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek, it recalls an atrocity in Poland and then considers its legacy in the decades that follow.
However, what interests Glukhovsky is not so much the arc of history but the compromises people make in order to survive.
And here some may find the choices made by his main protagonist Yosef particularly uncomfortable as he survives by becoming a member of the ghetto’s Jewish police who help Germans round up Jews destined for the camps.
Although Yosef is fictional, his actions chime with the testimony of Holocaust survivor Salomea Kape, the last survivor of the Lodz ghetto whom Glukhovsky spoke to at length in New York before she died.
Olivia Bernstone and James Garnon in The White Factory (Photo: Mark Senior)
Kape even read an early draft of the play and said she wasn’t much impressed by the mystical elements in which Yosef’s children hope to be saved by a golem.
“She told me that human tragedy doesn’t need mysticism,” says Glukhovsky. These sections were amended.
Kape also told him of the many survivors who lost their families in the Holocaust and later married again without ever mentioning their first family, just like Yosef.
“I realised that earlier versions of that play were pretty naive,” says Glukhovsky. “And then, when the war in Ukraine started, I rewrote the play to a great extent because I realised how people give in to pressure and coexist with evil.
"I have learned that conformism is probably the default choice for a lot of people and that moral demise can be almost invisible because it happens with very small steps.
"I’m watching 140 million Russians accept the pressure of power and evil and [observing] how they feel no need to resist it.”
"It occurs to me that for Glukhovsky his character Yosef is in one sense a warning to the writer who created him about the dangers of compromise.
“Without feeling the need to resist [the Russian authorities] I wouldn’t be able to create Yosef,” acknowledges Glukhovsky.
“I consider myself a trivial being. But yes because of my exposure [to danger] I do have insight into the psyche of a person facing choices. So in a way, you’re right.
“However I don’t think of myself as the complete opposite of Yosef. I’m not Alexei Navalny who went back to Russia to be charged.
“But OK, I am writing about conformism because it is something I can relate to. This is the inner struggle.”
The White Factory is at The Marylebone Theatre until November 4.
For tickets, visit tickets.marylebonetheatre.com/tickets/series/WHITEFACTORY