It’s only been 70 years since the Second World War ended, but our world has changed so much since then that it’s difficult to imagine what that era must have been like.
It’s especially hard to imagine what things were like in Nazi-controlled Germany.
Ariel Company Theatre attempts to capture this world in The Edelweiss Pirates, a one-act play performed as part of National Theatre Connections.
The show boasts an impressive yet unsettling opening, as the young actors march onto the stage in Hitler Youth costumes, singing confidently and precisely in German. Projected documentary film footage is used here and throughout the play to show how the Nazi party did its best to brainwash young people.
However, as The Edelweiss Pirates makes clear, some kids simply could not conform and this production presents the tragic story behind one group of teens. The youths start small by teasing their overseer (Tom York playing a volatile young man) and secretly writing anti-Hitler slogans on walls. Jarrod Hopson is particularly amusing as the wry Dieter. It’s mildly comical but things quickly become serious as the ‘pirates’ become more defiant and hide their Jewish friend Benjamin.
The cast works well together with engaging dialogue between Tom Clark as ex-soldier Rutger and Tom Carey as Benjamin. Rutger seems to be a rebel but can’t shake off the propaganda he has been fed about Jewish people and Benjamin challenges these stereotypes. Will Carey (as Klaus) and Nathan Harwood (as Juergan) fully flesh out their characters too, and all the Ariel performers maintain a high level of professionalism throughout.
The Edelweiss Pirates is an ensemble piece but I think the most effective moments happen when each character gets a monologue to explain why they oppose the Nazis. It’s a good way of conveying the humanity of these youths in a time when the state would simply have seen them as criminals. Anna Holland’s sensitive performance as Petra is especially poignant.
Essentially, The Edelweiss Pirates presents people trapped in a system that bans intellectual freedom and demands absolute loyalty while failing to offer anything in return. One scene, for example, presents boys and girls of the Hitler Youth dancing together at a party. It’s supposed to be fun but this dance is overseen by the story’s Nazi narrator, played with an icy calm by Annie Forman.
The character uses a mixture of authority and casuistry to question the teens, disrupting their dance to guide them towards the conclusion that Nazism must triumph.
It’s a great way of showing how totalitarian systems cannot leave people alone and can never let them be human.