Laced with both poetry and profanity, Peter Arnott’s White Rose grips right from the start and doesn’t let go. First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985, Firebrand Theatre’s revival tells the adapted true story of Lily Litvak, the famous Jewish female fighter pilot dubbed ‘the White Rose of Stalingrad’, her mechanic Ina, and their romantic feelings for the same man.
Scenes are played out in episodic bursts, with a couple of flashbacks to when the two women first met, a juxtaposition of hope with the jaded present. One scene sees Lily tenderly bandaging Ina’s finger like a matriarch, but in the main they have a more sisterly relationship, with all of the love and bickering that entails.
Edward Lipscomb’s set is stunning, with authentic Russian propaganda posters behind silver grey lockers which have red aeroplanes and spanners projected onto them and then stock footage and billowing smoke. At one point, the lockers fold out into bunk beds where the women sleep.
The scenes of intimacy between Lily and her captain and comrade Alexei are beautifully judged- you can almost feel the burn of vodka as it goes down their throats. Alexei, initially attracted to Lily’s sexual assertiveness, starts to feel cowed by it , emasculated even. Indeed, many of the exchanges between men and women suggest that nothing changes, from kiss chase in the playground to combat in the war zones. When Erich, a German soldier is informed by Ina that he has been shot down by a female pilot, he giggles, then pouts like a petulant child, before realising the enormity of the situation.
Yet the title itself is something of a misnomer, as this is not really Lily’s journey. Lily herself seems a little under-written, although this could be done intentionally, to preserve her mystique. All three cast members, Robert Jack as Alexei, Lesley Harcourt as Lily and Alison O’Donnell as Ina in particular are fine, but it is Ina that is the glue that holds the drama together- she has the measure of boorish Alexei , playing the women off against each other, needing them to reflect his own glory back onto him, a true Narcissist.
Initially, Ina seems young and gauche, but transforms into an outspoken feminist, railing against Lily’s blind acceptance of received wisdom, spouting off about ‘’the Motherland’’, without considering the effects on civilians and embracing her celebrity for its own sake. She erupts into intellectual discourse, stating ‘’invention is the life and form of revolution’’, and it is clear that her own feelings for Alexei have become compromised, long before he announces his intention to marry Lily.
There are two wars being simultaneously played out: the war against Nazism and the internal struggle within the two women against patriarchal oppression. When White Rose hits, it is a visceral, thrilling and triumphant piece of theatre.