‘A female-led story that needed to be told’: Ross McGregor on writing The White Rose at the Brockley Jack Studio

In Features, Interviews, London theatre, Plays, Regional theatre by Liz DyerLeave a Comment

Arrows & Traps have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with over the last few years with their unique and exciting adaptations of classic works of literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. But next week marks a new chapter for the company, as they present The White Rose, the first original play written by Arrows founder and artistic director Ross McGregor.

“The White Rose tells the true account of the life of Sophie Scholl, a young student in Hitler’s Germany, who, with her brother Hans, forms a group of intellectual freedom fighters – calling themselves The White Rose,” explains Ross. “Together they lead the only major act of civil disobedience to the Third Reich. They have serious objections to what their government is doing during the war, particularly in Russia and Poland, and decide to voice their opinions in a series of leaflets that they write and distribute covertly all across Germany.

“Their resistance to the regime, although pacifist and passive in nature, causes major shockwaves all across the country, just at the point in 1943 when the war is turning in the Allies’ favour. It’s the story of a small group of young people standing up to the greatest act of brutality that modern history has ever seen.”

Ross first heard Sophie’s story earlier this year on a podcast called ‘The women who changed history but were ultimately forgotten by it’, and realised that here in Britain, we know very little about her. “I don’t think the story is that well-known, at least not in England, and this production seeks, in a very small way, to rectify that. In Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl are national heroes, with over 190 schools named in their honour, streets, town squares, foundations, museums – one of the group was even made a saint.

“In a recent poll on German television, German citizens were asked to vote for their Greatest German. Sophie and Hans came fourth. They beat Einstein, Bach and Beethoven. I felt this was a female-led story that needed to be told – and with the world as it is currently, and how those in power are treating the weak and vulnerable, it seemed incredibly topical.”

In light of recent news headlines (and the arrival of a certain U.S. president in London), the story of The White Rose feels even more frighteningly relevant. “You would hope that the horrors of the Third Reich were behind us, but you only have to turn on the news to see the latest updates on the concentration camps in America – land of the free,” says Ross. “Concentration camps are defined as a location where individuals are detained against their will indefinitely without trial, and that is exactly what the Trump administration is currently doing. Children are being separated from their parents, and specific minorities are being targeted as enemies of the state, being compared to criminals without a crime actually being committed. Our future lies in the voices of the next generation, and the principles that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose stood for are as valid and vital today as they were in 1943.”

The White Rose marks the next step in the Arrows journey, which began back in 2014 with Much Ado About Nothing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. “Since 2016, our last Shakespeare show, we’ve been moving towards more modern work – mainly because we’ve done so many Shakespeare plays, and he’s not writing any more so we’re running out of material,” says Ross, who’s directed all twelve Arrows productions to date. “I have a deep love of Russian literature, and so that was our focus to begin with, with Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. As we moved forward, I began writing the shows, beginning with a Frankenstein that served also as a biopic of Mary Shelley herself, and an entirely new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted from the original Russian and a literal translation. After some success in the format, I felt it was time to do an original piece, without the comfort blanket of it being an adaptation, and Sophie’s story completely gripped me.

“When I was writing The White Rose there was an increased level of freedom, as the play has never been performed before, and you don’t have any ghosts of previous performances to exorcise or measure up to, but the writing of the script took a huge amount of research, which was a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing process. What quickly became clear was that all of the characters in the play could have had a play written about them, the source material was that rich, so it became more about working out what the focus was, and pairing the original story down into a theatrical form. Decide the story you want to tell, and try to tell it as cleanly and clearly as possible. It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a rich and detailed piece of history.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

While adapting works of literature carries with it an obligation to honour both the source text and those who know and love it, Ross argues that telling a story based on real historical figures is an even greater responsibility: “With our previous work in adaptations, we tried to serve the fanbase of the original novels, whilst still infusing each piece with something original and modern, but with The White Rose we’re dealing with a true story, involving real people, real crimes, real deaths, and several members of the story are still alive today. There was an immense responsibility to stay true to the actual events that took place 75 years ago, to the extent that the script uses verbatim pieces of text from diaries, court transcripts, first person accounts and interrogation documents. The story was unbelievably brave, heartbreaking and inspiring just as it was, without any embellishment, and I wanted to honour the sacrifice this incredible group of young people made.”

Regular Arrows fans will recognise many familiar faces in the cast of The White Rose, which opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio. “With this being such a special show, filled with such rich and nuanced characters, I wanted a cast that represented the best of what Arrows & Traps had to offer. Eight of the nine members of the cast are returning members to the company, and it filled me with such joy to cast them before the script was written, as it allowed me to write for the actors, and cultivate roles that I knew would challenge them, as well as play to their strengths.  I think a large part of the enjoyment of coming to see an Arrows show, as we’re a rep company, is to watch familiar faces in contrasting roles, and appreciate how that ensemble dynamic changes and shifts across the different texts we tackle.

“We have our resident Movement Director Will Pinchin, who was an Off West End Award finalist for his portrayal of the Creature in our recent Frankenstein, returning as Hans Scholl. We have Off West End Award Best Actor nominee Christopher Tester (Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein) as Gestapo Interrogator Robert Mohr, Pearce Sampson (Macbeth, Gospel According to Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night, Three Sisters) returning as the heartbreakingly tragic Christoph Probst,  Conor Moss (Three Sisters) as the blisteringly funny Alexander Schmorell, Freddie Cambanakis (Three Sisters) as the dashing heartthrob Fritz Hartnagel, Beatrice Vincent (Frankenstein) as the powerhouse Traute Lafrenz, Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Gospel According To Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night) returning as moral compass Willi Graf, and of course Cornelia Baumann (Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Frankenstein, Three Sisters) playing Sophie’s cellmate Else Gebel. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure it would be an Arrows show if Cornelia wasn’t in it, she’s the heart of the company, and the best actress I’ve ever worked with.

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

“And lastly, but of course by no means least, we have the wonderful talent of Lucy Ioannou in the title role of Sophie Scholl. Although Lucy is new to the company, she has blown me away in rehearsal with her dedication to the role – she’s incredibly talented and an absolute joy to direct. For me, three weeks into rehearsal, she is Sophie Scholl.”

The Arrows’ next production after The White Rose sees a return to classic literature, as they turn their attention to a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula is again a new piece written in-house, which is going to be at the Brockley Jack just in time for Halloween,” says Ross. “Whilst having the focus of being an utterly terrifying experience, we’re also going to simultaneously tell the story of Bram Stoker, and his tumultuous relationship with infamous actor, arguably the most famous of his generation, Henry Irving. As the writer and director of the show, I’m currently in the research stages for the piece, and I cannot wait for it – we’re certainly ending the year with a bang, and have something truly spectacular planned for the new year, which I can’t talk about just yet.

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention Artistic Director Kate Bannister, and Producer Karl Swinyard, at the Brockley Jack, who have supported our work for the last three years, and given us a home in which to cultivate our creative direction and find the work we wanted to make. You cannot hope to meet a more generous and caring theatre management team than Kate and Karl – they’re the best of the best, always on your side, and always open to taking new work. Kate fell in love with Sophie’s story from Day One, as she passionately cares about telling female-led stories, and supporting new writing, and it’s been such an honour to work with them on a great season so far.”

The White Rose runs from 17th July to 4th August at the Brockley Jack Studio.

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Liz Dyer on FacebookLiz Dyer on Twitter
Liz Dyer
A lifelong fan who's always been far more comfortable watching theatre than making it, Liz Dyer fell into blogging very much by accident after joining the blog team at London Theatre Direct. From there, she began reviewing regularly for LondonTheatre1.com and (fellow Mate) Carn's Theatre Passion, before setting up her own site Theatre Things in 2015 to cover shows across London and Kent. She tweets from her blog at @theatrethingsuk and personally at @lizzid82.
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Liz Dyer on FacebookLiz Dyer on Twitter
Liz Dyer
A lifelong fan who's always been far more comfortable watching theatre than making it, Liz Dyer fell into blogging very much by accident after joining the blog team at London Theatre Direct. From there, she began reviewing regularly for LondonTheatre1.com and (fellow Mate) Carn's Theatre Passion, before setting up her own site Theatre Things in 2015 to cover shows across London and Kent. She tweets from her blog at @theatrethingsuk and personally at @lizzid82.