Thursday, 31 January 2013

White Rose by Peter Arnott

Last time out, Firebrand toured Iron: a claustrophobic tale of parenting and criminality, it was give a sparse, effective rendering that emphasises the moral complexities of Rona Munro's script. Keeping with the theme of great, contemporary Scottish authors, Firebrand are following up with White Rose by Peter Arnott.

Although White Rose was a hit in its debut at the 1985 Edinburgh Festival, this is the first revival of the tale of female Russian World War II fighter ace Lily Litvak, the so-called ‘White Rose of Stalingrad’. Not only was she part of the USSR's heroic female pilot corps (thirty Citations of Hero of the Soviet Union went to women pilots, and three regiments of the Air Force were made up entirely of women), Litvak became a legend in her own right.

Firebrand’s director Richard Baron follows the tale of war in the sky and in the bedroom: White Rose offers an insight into the spirit of the warrior and the pull of patriotism. He also responded to my questions...

First of all, can I ask you a little about the company: you've been pretty busy lately, and are located outside of the usual locations. How did Firebrand come together, and how important is your "home" venue to the company's development?
Firebrand came together through a series of happy accidents: the actors Janet Coulson, Ellie Zeegen and I originally met in London but all ended up living in close proximity in the Scottish Borders. We found it an area rich in history and full of writers, artists and musicians but with little theatre going on. Having got some local businesses to sponsor us, we tested the water with a couple of productions at the 80 seat Wynd Theatre in Melrose and having been told we'd fill one night if we were lucky, managed to sell-out five performances each of David Mamet's Oleanna and David Greig's Being Norwegian.

This response convinced us that there was a Borders audience enthusiatic to see the sort of challenging plays we were excited by and we also saw that the work itself benefited from being produced in intimate theatre spaces. Having achieved Creative Scotland funding we now rehearse and open our shows in the 110 seat Tower Mill theatre, at the impressive Heart of Hawick arts complex, before touring across the breadth of southern Scotland and exporting our work to the Tron in Glasgow and Traverse in Edinburgh.

It was fantastic to be able to produce a weighty, rarely seen show like Iron in our home territory (sponsored by the new Scottish Borders Brewery and with a set built by local craftsmen), to attract an actor of the calibre of Blythe Duff to come and rehearse with us in Hawick and then to sell-out every performance both to our developing audience in the Borders and in the big city.

2. You've also gone for two pretty impressive scripts in the past two years. does this attention to classic scripts reflect a policy of the company?

Firebrand's simple guiding principle has been to seek-out plays that we think might work to advantage in an intimate space and to produce them to the highest possible standard: hence Oleanna, set in an office; Being Norwegian, a bed-sit; Iron, a claustrophobic prison. Other defining features are that they are all superbly written and intensely theatrical; they stir the mind and the emotions and provide great acting roles, particularly for women. 

We are also very interested in Scottish plays that have been unfairly neglected or are overdue a revival. As a director, for the most part I've worked with large casts in large spaces, from the Edinburgh Lyceum to Nottingham Playhouse, and with Firebrand it's been fascinating to reduce the palette a bit and concentrate in finer detail on the storytelling: the script and the actor and the relationship with a new and inquisitive audience, some of whom are new to theatre full stop. White Rose pushes all these buttons: it's beautifully written, takes on the epic battle of Stalingrad with a cast of three, has terrific acting roles (the original cast featured Tilda Swinton and Ken Stott), is seen from a female perspective and hasn't been revived since its debut in 1985.

When you stage something like White Rose, how far do you have contact with the author, Peter Arnott? Is he involved at all?

In researching White Rose I eventually hunted down two different typed versions of the script in Glasgow University's Scottish Theatre Archive and on contacting Peter learnt that despite its critical acclaim in 1985, the play had never been published. Peter has now sent me a revised version of what was his first play and has said: "I'm looking forward immensely to what an audience today makes of not just the conflict the play is about, but the atmosphere of conflict and optimism in which it was written. Can't wait."

This play hasn't been staged for a while... but is very well respected. How did you approach the interpretation of White Rose, and what inspired its selection?

I was intrigued by the fact that the play had had such a great reception in 1985, "Dazzlingly clever...unbearably moving" to quote The Guardian, had made Tilda Swinton's name and had been part of the most successful Edinburgh Festival season the Traverse had ever had and yet still had not been revived for 27 years!

I also really liked the idea that it was a Scottish play about Russian history (it tells the story of legendary World War 2 female fighter pilot Lily Litvak); bold and ambitious in its European style and outlook, taking on big themes about modern warfare and sexual politics but relating them to the intimate personal relationships of its three main characters: the brilliant, rebellious Lily, her friend and female mechanic Ina and her Squadron Commander and lover, Alexei.

I wanted to see if in our production we could achieve this marriage of the epic and the personal. I am very optimistic that with our cast of Alison O'Donnell, Lesley Harcourt and Robert Jack, and with the help of the set designer Edward Lipscomb and the theatre filmmaker Tim Reid, we have the right ingredients.

The themes in the play are timeless, but it is also located in a specific period of history. Does it have much to say to a contemporary audience, and how does your interpretation enhance this?

The play was written in the wake of the Falklands War, at the height of Thatcherism, the Greenham Common protests and the miner's strike and before the Berlin Wall was pulled down. What is fascinating is that its issues will now be seen through a different political and historical filter but I believe that its passion and commitment are visceral and its analysis of the politics of modern warfare and the battle of the sexes, seen from a female point of view, still has the power to engage and enrage.

Listings Information

Tower Mill, Heart of Hawick, Thursday 21 – Saturday 23 February 2013 7.30pm

Tickets: (preview) Thursday 21 February £10

Friday 22 & Saturday 23 February £12

Box Office: 01450 360688

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Tuesday 26 February -Saturday 2 March 7.45pm
Tickets: Tuesday - Thursday £12/£7

Friday & Saturday £15/£12

Box Office: 0141 552 4267

Lochside Theatre, Castle Douglas, Sunday 3 March 7.30pm Tickets: £10/£8

Box Office: 01556 504506

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Wednesday 6 - Thursday 7 March 7.30pm

Tickets: £11.50 (£9.50) £6.50 under 18s

Box Office: 0131 665 2240

Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, Friday 8 March 7.30pm

Tickets: £14, Friends of the Eastgate/Registered Disability/Carer £12, U16s £5

Box Office: 01721 725777

The Wynd, Melrose, Sunday 10 - Tuesday 12 March 7.30pm

Tickets: £12

Box Office: 01750 725480

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wednesday 13 - Saturday 16 March 8.00pm
Matinee: Saturday 17 November 2.00pm

Tickets: £15/£11.50/£6

Box Office: 0131 228 1404

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