(Mark Lawson’s review appeared in the Guardian, 9/21/2023; Photo: The Guardian.)
Marylebone theatre, London
Set in a Polish ghetto, Dmitry Glukhovsky’s superb play explores the terrible choices made by people under occupation
Only the hardest heart would not feel advance goodwill towards The White Factory. Playwright Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko are Jewish Russians effectively made stateless dissidents by Putin’s dictatorship and invasion of Ukraine. And the subject is the Holocaust, which culture has a duty to keep current.
Warmth towards a drama, though, must be justified by the hottest creativity, which the play achieves by honouring Jewish dead and survivors while also engaging with today’s Russia and wider politics elsewhere.
Bookended by scenes in 1960s Brooklyn, the play is mainly set in Poland under Nazi occupation. It focuses on the Łódź ghetto which, unlike Warsaw’s and others, initially mitigated the scale of genocide by becoming “indispensable” – as Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish elder, put it – to their would-be murderers by turning every building into a workplace, creating products Germany craved. The “White Factory” was an abandoned Catholic church that manufactured feather pillows.
While unsentimental about real-life figures – sexual harassment by Jewish leaders is frankly dramatised – the play accepts, as surely viewers must, that their deals with the Nazis were not collaboration but tactical desperation: whatever it took to reduce the death toll.
The troubling guts of the play, though, are the naivety of believing that the lives-for-goods arrangement would be taken in good faith. This theme of the futility of trusting tyrants seems clearly aimed at Putin as much as Hitler, but viewers in theoretically benign democracies are also invited to chew and perhaps choke on the calm arguments about what should happen to a society’s elderly or industrially unproductive people.