The White Factory
Marylebone Theatre | ★★★★✩
CP Taylor’s play Good plots the process by which a decent man (recently played by David Tennant) whose best friend is a Jew (Elliot Levey) becomes a Nazi.
Russian writer Dmitry Ghlukhovsky’s new play also charts moral disintegration, only here it is that of a Jew whose every principle is ground to dust by Nazi persecution until he becomes a tool in his own people’s destruction.
There are reasons to question Glukhovsky’s approach. Focusing on the choices made by Jews while in the teeth of Nazi oppression is not the moral lesson I suspect the author thinks it is.
In my interview with him this week, he speaks of being partly motivated to write his play by the conformism of his fellow Russian citizens, many of whom accept a government that commits war crimes without protest.
But their circumstances are not Yosef’s, the Polish-Jewish lawyer in Glukhovsky’s play who first shows himself to be a man of principle when his firm refuses to protect him from a client’s antisemitism, and who ends up rounding up Jewish children to be deported to death camps in order to save his own family.
Still, the play itself makes no such comparisons and it is hard to argue that choices made by Jews that would fill most of us with shame in normal circumstances have no place on a stage.
It is after all not Jewish behaviour that Glukhovsky examines, but human behaviour in the cruellest of circumstances.
This world premiere production, translated by Marian Schwartz and directed by Glukhovsky’s fellow Russian in exile Maxim Didenko, is startlingly ambitious.
The play is performed on a great white slab (design by Galya Solodovnikova) that splits when vaulting the action from New York in 1960 where Yosef (Mark Quartley) is a successful lawyer, to the Polish city of Lodz, in 1939 just before the Nazis establish the Jewish ghetto.
Black and white video projections from an onstage camera add a newsreel feel, while Pythonesque animated sequences inject splashes of absurdism.
Didenko has a masterful command of pace and pitch as the family life of young, principled lawyer Yosef, and that of his wife Rivka (Pearl Chanda) turns into a waking nightmare.
The agent of the horror that befalls them is the real- life Nazi Wilhelm Koppe, the SS officer who industrialised mass murder in Poland. Also real is Chaim Rumkowski (Adrian Schiller) who Koppe appointed as the Jewish leader of the ghetto. He too is presented as a figure of endlessly diminishing morality.
That said, the speech in which he implores the ghetto’s residents to obey orders to give up their children so that they may be transported alone to Auschwitz is a moment of unfathomable anguish.
The focus, however, is on the fictional, though utterly convincing Yosef and his family. Here Quartley and Chanda terrifically embody two moral backbones, one that bends to the Nazi’s will and one that refuses.
Also worth mentioning is James Garnon who as Koppe is brimful of pitiless Nazi self-importance, and Schiller who doubles as Rivka’s morally uncompromising father and the morally compromised Rumkowski.
The lesson that good people are corrupted under imaginable pressure is not as compelling as Taylor’s Good, which is that good people are corrupted under relatively little pressure. But this is still a powerful addition to the Holocaust canon.