Joshua Sobol, in an English version by Barry Edelstein
Finborough Theatre

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Virtually every war spawns conscientious objectors. Unjust wars generate a small army of them. Different countries deal with them differently. Under the Third Reich they were executed.

In Sobol's powerful play, IWitness, the main protagonist, Franz, is a conscientious objector. The play was inspired by the tragic fate of Franz Jagerstatter (1907-1943), an Austrian farmer who refused to co-operate with the Nazis after the infamous 1938 Anschluss when Germany annexed Austria.

Franz, movingly acted by Mel Raido, is a conscientious objector. He is kept in a cell where shoes and pots benefit from his urge to polish and clean. He is visited by memories, friends and is kept under pressure to sign a form declaring his willingness to serve the Third Reich. We, the audience, are seated on either side of the stage, privy to all.

He, like all other protagonists, is an eye-witness to what was going on. Franz puts forward in brilliant lines why he elected to sacrifice his life for his principles, unlike the majority.

Franz stands half-naked, dressed in his white underwear. He gravitates towards a white-tiled wall and presses his body in a spread-eagle position onto the wall, where a "family video" is projected showing a child running. Then, as agonizing acts of memory etched on his face, the projections vanish.

The centre stage is taken over by two women from his immediate past and present. One, Margaret, exquisitely acted by Leah Muller, is from his wild past and is still besotted with him despite his confession that he does not love her. Facing her is calm and gentle Franca (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), his beloved wife and inspiration, and their little girl, Maria (eight years old Natalia Tatarka).

Ronen astutely engages the young Tatarka to move playfully and at the same time purposefully. She personifies childhood in its carefree, benign and naïve form. Her innocent questions and comments, so naturally made, highlight and at the same time detract from her father's imminent execution. She assists, unknowingly, in a brilliant ploy to reduce the tension between the rivalling women as well as eclipsing the menacing fate awaiting her father. She jumps on her father's cell mattress to a steady rhythm which is almost like a heartbeat, filling the void before the fatal moment, and offering a welcome distraction.

Maria's monotonous bouncing on the mattress, arms outstretched like a little dove and the innocent look on her face conveys the beauty of the family relationship that Franz must sacrifice for his principles. The audience is eyewitness to the high price that he must pay by leaving this beautiful child and his loving wife whom he evidently adores. Tatarka's performance cannot be measured by her years or height; she is a minor character who succeeds in capturing centre stage.

Two old friends, Hans, superbly performed by Richard Atwill, and Martin, the proud Arian, convincingly acted by Jonathan Bryan, visit Franz in his cell and try to persuade him to capitulate. The exchanges unmask with humour and pain some of the polarised views held by those in military service. Martin shows blind loyalty to the Third Reich, while Hans does not shy away from making hilarious yet deprecating comments which amount to a verbal caricature of the reality they have to live through. He uses his time to gratify sexual needs 'until the defeat'.

The doubling of rolls, where Atwill is Hans and also Franz's Father Confessor and Head of the Court Martial while Bryan is Martin and also doubles as Defence counsel, is inspired and adds further dimension to the issues raised.

There are many elements in this production and in the play which allude to Christianity - the women's love for the same man; the child's innocence; the constant need to use water for cleansing; Franz's falling into his wife's arms evoking the much-familiar portrait of Christ falling into the arms of his mother after the deposition from the cross.

In a world raged by wars and occupations, the play is timely and thought-provoking. Ronen's directorial debut is brilliant. Watch this space for further offerings from this young and exceptionally talented Director.

This is an impressive production of a powerful play, where the overall performance of every member of the cast is impressive.

Don't miss it!

Runs until 27 January

Rivka interviewed director Michael Ronen as he was rehearsing the play

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

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