Last Updated on 25th September 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews The White Factory now playing at Marylebone Theatre, London.
The White Factory
THE INFECTION OF WICKEDNESS
The history of the Lodz ghetto in Poland is a part of the Holocaust story worth foxusing on, ot least because the Jewish population there were made use of for years in near-starvation and hars labour before being, with that icy Nazi efficiency, disposed of. This remarkable play opens in Bonn, 1960: a chocolate factory boss bullying an employee. Abruptlt, a news bulletin tells us the German boss has been arrested: Wm.Koppe was the SS Obengruppefuehrer in charge of the Lodz ghetto .
The light changes, and far away in Brooklyn a Jewish lawyer suddenly in distress claws the walls , prising open a chasm into 1940. This is a bleak and magnificent memory play about conscience, compromise and corruption, based in Holocaust history but laced with angry shameful relevance in the age of Putin. The Russian playwright is Dmitri Glukhovsky, his director – inventive, shiveringly well-paced – is Maxim Didenko. Both are political exiles of this war.
The fictional hero is Mark Quartley as Josef Kaufman, a lawyer with a healthy contempt for the Nazi soldiers: here’s a man who won’t sew a yellow star on his jacket! Except that he will, very soon, for mere survival. Anyone who fantasises about being a defiant hero in such circumstances needs to see that moment: the scrabbling to get scraps of yellow cloth for his little boys’ sweaters.
The officer Wilhelm Koppe is a historical character, and so is Chaim Rumkowski, the elder of the ghetto, given the job by the contemptous SS chief to keep 200,000 Jews in order, and penned inside the ghetto. Adrian Schiller is superb as Chaim, who in those desperate circumstances thought that by turning every corner into a factory – producing uniforms and boots for the invaders – he would make the community ” irreplaceable!”and save them. But for the old, sick and unproductive there was soon a “resettlement” train to death.
Elegant lighting – a particular feature of this show by Alex Musgrave, at one point shows one side the blue-chill calculations of the Nazi exterminators and across the stage the golden warmth of Kaufman’s family (two little boys playing, Pearl Chanda as the wife tending the grumpy grandfather. Sometimes hand-held cameras – brilliantly done, not distracting as they sometimes can be – throw faces into monochrome projections. And sometimes, as grandfather or later Kaufman tells a story to the children, there are wonderful animations of Jewish legend and faith – the Golem especially – created by Oleg Mikahilov .
Not only is the staging remarkable, but there is a toughness here: no feelgood heroism, no saviour hero, no Schindler. Rather we see old Chaim compromising, organizing deportations, finally making the famous speech asking parents to give up their children when the Nazis order a cull. “I come to you like a bandit, to take what you treasure most..”. On his knees to Koppe he gets the order reduced so that children over ten can stay and work in the factories, but he is personally damaged by the compromise of his life and jobs. Startlingly for those who want pure heroes, he is also seen in his stress as as creepily predatory on the young women. Similarly, a savage knock on the door is as likely to be the Jewish police as Nazis. And even Kaufman is finally enlisted, rounding up other people’s children to save his own in an extraordinarily powerful sequence of rhythmic knocking on doors.
All lose in the end, and there is bitterness in the fact that Koppe loses less than anyone, and lived on free after his 1960 arrest and trial due to “ill health”. That trial, starkly staged at the end, sees the Brooklyn lawyer dirtied by the horror, smugly reminded that he too ended up obeying orders. Perfectly staged and played, this is a cruel, moral, brilliant and necessary play for all times. It should put this small new enterprising theatre firmly on the map.
The White Factory runs at Marylebone Theatre to 4 November