Memorial, The Friary - Review

At this time of year, there's much coverage about Allied veterans who served and died in the First and Second World War. Much less has been said about the conscientious objectors at that time who faced at best harassment and a pariah status or at worst, long-term imprisonment in the most appalling conditions. Even less than that, what about the Austrian-German citizens who stood up to the Third Reich? Why does history not mention such things?

Memorial, which is written and directed by Sharon Jennings tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who would not verbally give his allegiance to Hitler and was executed for it. The first half of the play takes place after the war, with villagers debating what commemorative words should be used for the young men's monument.

While villagers like Sonja (Meg Lake) want the soldiers' epitaph to include full honours, John (Richard Evans) who co-heads the meeting, wants the memorial to them to be distinct from other young men fallen in combat. After all, they were drafted into the Third Reich...Father Karobath (Garry Merry) reminds the village of someone who should be remembered – Franz Jägerstätter. This proves to be controversial choice. Lena (Carianne Dunford) reminds the village folk that Jägerstätter was once keen on her daughter, that he was in fact a bit of a Jack-the-Lad in his youth. However, it isn't his high jinx that has them murmuring, but his "excessive" religious fervour which he found as an older, married man.

Sonja makes a point about Jägerstätter that puts his decisions into context. The village along with the Catholic Church surrendered to the Reich immediately for safety of their families and to have a minimal influence from within. Was Jägerstätter right to do what he did when he had a wife and four daughters to care for? Was his actions, therefore, selfish when seen in this light? Or have the moral values of the village been warped by self-preservation?

The second act takes us back to the events that immediately led to Jägerstätter being drafted. Standing before a judge, Jägerstätter has to give an account for his refusal to pledge allegance to Der Fuhrer. The way the second act's written, it's not hard to see parallels to the Passion with the conversation between Pontius Pilate and Christ. However, Jägerstätter isn't a messiah figure and far from perfect. Rather he's akin to John Proctor from The Crucible. Unlike the rest of his home village, the one thing he can't surrender is his name, his soul...

Jennings' play does ask a lot of intriguing questions regarding wartime ethics and personal responsibility. Is being a 'martyr' a luxury when you have a family at home to care for? Or do some issues transcend even the well-being of one's kin? Food for thought.

(c) Michael Davis 2015

Memorial ran at The Friary, Westminster between 10-14 November 2015.!current-production/b1h9l

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