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 The Theatreguide.London Review


IWitness
Finborough Theatre January 2007

Israeli dramatist Joshua Sobol's play is part hagiography, part propaganda piece, and it has the inherent flaws of both genres, most notably that it is not very good drama.

Sobol tells the somewhat fictionalised story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer who became something of a folk hero (long after the fact) for choosing death over any co-operation with the Nazis.

In a programme note the playwright openly acknowledges that his intention is to inspire the small number of Israeli soldiers beginning to rebel against orders to mistreat Palestinians. But to do so, he has to cheat both as historian and dramatist, in ways that backfire against the play's success.

The actual Jagerstatter was a devout Catholic who built his opposition to the Nazis on a deep and fully developed religious faith. But Sobol cuts almost all references to religion that might get in the way of his intended audience's identification with his hero, leaving the play's Franz a secular moralist with nothing more than his own conviction that he's right.

Of course he is right, but that's not the point. Like many hagiographers Sobol actually turns his cardboard saint into an unattractive prig - he won't accept an offered job as janitor in a children's hospital because it would mean wearing a German uniform - and while the play won't make you root for the Nazis, it is will draw your sympathies towards those who urge him to make the tiny, meaningless compromises that could save his life.

Several characters in the play accuse Franz of being an egotist who assumes that he's right just because he's him, and that everyone else in the world is wrong just because they disagree with him - and dramatically, you are likely to find yourself sympathising with them and just getting annoyed with the character the play wants to celebrate.

This is particularly evident when Sobol introduces two friends of Franz's who have allowed themselves to be drafted. One has a totally pointless army job that leaves him confident he is doing absolutely nothing to further the Nazi war machine, while the other is an anti-aircraft gunner who sees nothing political in defending innocent civilians from enemy bombers.

Sobol wants us to see them as rationalising sell-outs in contrast to his pure hero. But in fact they come across as far more rational and attractive, while Franz suffers by the comparison.

Neither director Michael Ronen nor his cast can overcome the script's inherent failures. Mel Raido captures Franz's intensity and self-righteousness, but simply isn't given the material with which to make him human.

Somewhat more successful, with admittedly easier roles, are Natalie Radmall-Quirke as the wife trying to remember what she loved in this man, Jonathan Bryan and Richard Atwill as the friends who have made their own acceptable compromises with reality, and James Henry Parker as a sympathetic prison guard.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - IWitness - Finborough 2007