The White Factory

Reviewer's Rating

The Marylebone Theatre is a lovely new 200-seat theatre on the edge of Regent’s Park that combines intimacy, comfy seats (all of which enjoy a clear view of the stage), and delightful architectual features, together with an attractive, inviting cafe. I look forward very much to returning to productions here in the future. However, for the time being it is home to a dark but necessary play about the destruction of the Łódź Ghetto which casts shadows backwards and forwards in its wake.

‘The White Factory’ is the creation of current Russian exiles, the playwright Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko. It focuses on the story of an urban ghetto in Poland that had a very different experience during World War Two from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Jews of Łódź were reorganised under a factory discipline to produce military supplies for the German Army. Periodically the Germans required the leader of the Ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, to surrender groups of ‘non-productive’ citizens who were immediately transported to Chelmo and Auschwitz death camps. This play focuses on the agonising moral choices involved and invites us to reflect, with an eye of present-day events, on where forced acquiescence transitions into active collaboration with the oppressor. How plausible, also, was Rumkowski’s hope that through work the Jewish population might be kept alive long enough to be saved by the Russians?

At the centre of the action is a fictional character Yosef Kaufman, an educated Jewish lawyer in the ghetto, and his family. At the start they plan escape but abandon that because Yosef’s father-in-law cannot travel with them. The rest of the play is a series of accommodations as Yosef and his wife Rivka try to save themselves and their children by cooperating with Rumkowski’s client administration, culminating in Yosef becoming a policeman enforcing German orders that compel the population to surrender their children. Yosef survives the war, as does the SS officer responsible for ordering the death and exploitation of the Jews, and it is fair to say that no one get their ‘just’ deserts.

The performances of the actors are universally admirable and there are many exquisite, sometimes breathtaking, moments in Didenko’s production; but overall the evening is far too long at getting on for three hours, and you are left wondering how should you go about dramatising the Holocaust? As horror is piled on horror, the audience reaches saturation point, and the dramatic pulse begins to flag. What would be legitimate, even necessary, in a documentary, does not always work as drama. A shorter, more concise, play is waiting here to be extracted from the present baggy structure.

Designer Galya Solodovnika has devised a clinical white-box set that elegantly slides apart as needed and is disrupted by bursts of colour and contrast at key moments – a spray of blood, for example, or heaps of black feathers, which accumulate through the action, and which relate powerfully to the symbolic resonance of the title – a pillow factory set in a church that filled with feathers as the work progressed. Evocative, unsparing, lighting sequences from Alex Musgrave added powerfully to the action, and costumes, whether crisp and pristine for the Nazi uniforms or soiled and rumpled for the Jewish internees, were entirely apt. Hand-held camera work is used extensively add creepy tension to the atmopshere at key points.

In the lead role of Yosef Kaufman, Mark Quartley travels a harrowing journey of moral desperation, which starts in articulate and outraged resistance and ends in haunted dreams in Brooklyn in 1960. He is in almost all the scenes of the play, and we follow the twists and turns of his traumatic journey with a wondering sense of how or whether we might have acted differently. Equally plausible as she pursues a parallel but ultimately divergent course, is Pearl Chanda, as his wife Rivka, whose quick-thinking inventiveness and emotional constancy are continually on display. Their two sons are played with unaffected naturalness by Aron Yakobi and Lucas Allermann.

Adrian Schiller is at the heart of the play in two contrasted roles – Rumkowski himself, and the grandfather-figure, Old Ezekiel. This is wonderfully detailed acting, full of calculated detail. It is important that such a complex figure as Rumkowski is given a representation, that demonstrates his moral anguish and his clear corruption. We witness his exploitation of the vulnerable through sexual and other forms of abuse and hear his powerful, real-life speech in which he relays the German demand for the surrender of children. Equally accomplished, in a more chilling way, is James Garnon, as the SS commander, Wilhelm Koppe, calmly at ease in his own chillingly efficient mindset, and quite unrepentant to the end. There are other fine performances in a selection of smaller roles by Matthew Spencer, Olivia Bernstone and Lewis Hart.

So while the evening has many fine points, it drags as a whole and does not, at least in its present form, amount to more than the sum of its often notable parts.