Review: The White Rose, Brockley Jack

Arrows and Traps hit the mark once more with the deeply moving The White Rose at the Brockley Jack Theatre

Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? Wollt ihr ihn, wenn nötig, totaler und radikaler, als wir ihn uns heute überhaupt erst vorstellen können?”* 

How do we make the choice to resist? At what point do we decide that enough is enough in the creeping erosion of our democracy? When former foreign secretaries rip up ministerial codes or chief whips ignore Commons voting conventions? When presidents attack their own FBI and defend despots? Some 250,000 bodies may have thronged the streets of London last week to register their disapproval of the US Commander in Chief but what happens when the ‘other side’ has won, when the act of peaceful protest becomes civil disobedience.

It is into such a world that The White Rose throws us. It is 1943 and having insinuated their way into every level of German society and instituted a systemic indoctrination of much of the population, the Nazis have been in power for a decade. But the tectonic shifts of World War II have finally started to fall in the Allies’ favour and finding safety in like-minded numbers, students of the University of Munich have coalesced into an underground movement, publishing anti-Nazi leaflets and distributing them across the Fatherland. Could such amazing courage go unpunished?

I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say no, no it couldn’t. Ross McGregor’s production (of his own script, from Richard Hanser’s A Noble Treason) opens with Sophie Scholl under interrogation on discovery of some of this literature. And as she’s questioned on her role in the group, which includes her older brother, flashbacks take us into the history of its formation, its growth, its development into a countercultural touchstone. What the play also does is to locate the movement in a nuanced depiction of German society, in a world full of people just doing what they have to do to get by.

As tragic as the story of the White Rose rebels is, and take tissues – you will need them, I found these subplots to be infinitely moving. We might like to think of ourselves as freedom fighters to the core but the grim reality is is that the vast majority shut up rather than putting up. And so the mini-tragedies of the man who finds himself an interrogation officer (“Just because I’m Gestapo doesn’t mean I’m a monster”) or the soldier in the Wehrmacht (“If the captain of a boat is bad, that doesn’t mean the boat is bad”) cut incredibly deeply since we can’t help but judge, with the rich benefit of hindsight and the luxury of believing we’d never make such a compromise.

But for all the weight of the subject, The White Rose is engagingly and captivatingly staged, losing none of the visual inventiveness that has characterised so much of Arrows & Traps’ previous work. Even something as simple as the transitions from past to present are faultlessly effective thanks to Ben Jacobs’ lighting and Alistair Lax’s sound work. Contemporary video excerpts set the scene chillingly, flashes of movement work capture something of what must have been the nightmarish reality of living life through this, and a late move to simple reportage underscores the essential humanity that is being explored here, the real lives offered up in hope of a better world.

An assured company do the material justice. Lucy Ioannou’s Sophie is a mercurial delight, utterly convinced of the rightness of her actions even as the shadow of its consequences looms ever larger. And in the group around her, Conor Moss’ hugely charismatic Alex and Will Pinchin as zealous older brother Hans stand out and the humour they all bring (check the joke which manages to skewer both Trump and grammar nazis…!) offers a reminder of the resilience of community spirit even in the darkest times. Recommended.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
The White Rose is booking at the Brockley Jack Theatre until 4th August

*Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even yet imagine? – Joseph Goebbels

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