Can a small group of young people reclaim the country they love from the edge of the abyss and can they find the courage to try when it could cost them everything? Writer and director Ross McGregor’s new play explores this moral dilemma by telling the true story of a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl who dared to take on the Nazis.
Germany 1943 saw a small civil revolt in Munich when a group of students calling themselves the White Rose published a series of pamphlets decrying the Nazis and the conduct of the war. The young people risked everything to spread the word that there was an alterative to Hitler and his total war. These were no spy masters however, and their naivety would inevitably lead to their downfall in the face of the Gestapo, ruthlessly stamping out any form of dissent.
McGregor’s play effectively tells this story and cleverly contrasts the small scale of the students’ efforts with the vastness of the Nazi machine. The students try to laugh off the danger and make the exercise a game but once caught they are no match for their opponents. The play begins with Sophie’s (Lucy Ioannou) interrogation by a Gestapo officer (Christopher Tester) and then switches between that interview and the back story from Hans’ (Will Pinchin) first suggestion of action to the fateful decisions that resulted in their capture.
This technique generally works well although leaving the officer at a table making notes whilst a party rages around him is a slight distraction. In the second half of the play the delineation between the two time periods is clearer and works better. The dialogue is punchy and the pace is set at a sensible level.
The small ensemble all do well but some of the performances were of an exceptionally high standard. Iaonnou is outstanding as Sophie, vibrant, energetic, charming but will a steely determination to think and feel for herself. Her final monologue is delivered with impressive power, resulting in more than a few members of the audience needing to pretend it was smoke in their eyes, not tears. Tester is very good as the menacing Gestapo officer Mohr, gently luring Sophie into the traps he has prepared with calm efficiency and then unleashing fury when he needs to provide additional threat. Conor Mass demonstrates excellent comic timing as charming Alexander Schomorell, the conspirator who uses humour to manage the groups collective terror. Pinchin slightly disappoints as Hans, there isn’t much depth to his earnest group leader, which seems to contradict the duel life someone in his position would have to lead.
The design by Odin Corrie keeps things simple and makes best use of the small space. The scene has to double up as both Gestapo office and artist studio with no time for scene changes so minimising the furniture makes this feasible. Ben Jacobs lighting design has to do most of the heavy lifting and instantly transport us from one scene to the next and does so effectively.
There are some minor issues with the structure of the production though. The introductory videos at the beginning of each act seem superfluous and the short, fantasy dance sections stop the narrative dead in its tracks and do not add much value. Hans’ political awaking is demonstrated by faceless goons; in jack boots, helmets and gas masks; harassing a Jewish woman in the street in dance form. This perhaps misses the point that the goons would not have been faceless, they could have been men that Hans knew.
Beyond those minor annoyances this is a well written and professionally staged production that tackles a challenging topic with humour and sensitivity. There is an opportunity to emotionally invest in this group, despite knowing the outcome, and wonder how any of us would behave if we were so similarly tested.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative