It is often said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter — but what inspires the man who refuses to fight? Is he a coward? A man of conscience? Or a mere contrarian who goes too far? Sharon Jennings’s new play, ‘Memorial’, explores the surprisingly not yet well-known story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian executed during the Second World War for his conscientious objection to military service under Hitler.
This clever telling frames the martyr’s life mostly in retrospect, as the Mayor (played by the very capable Joe Cushley) assembles the leading villagers of St Radegund (actors Richard Evans, Carianne Dunford, Richard Ward, and Meg Depla-Lake) to compile the list of names to be etched permanently in stone on the village’s war memorial. The list is finalised but there is one name that cries out to be remembered: their poor lamented Franz.
We meet the main character (played by Felix Dunning) both through the memories of his rural contemporaries and his own letters home to his wife during basic training. For his refusal to take the military oath of absolute obedience to Adolf Hitler, he is thrown into prison. ‘Memorial’ reaches its apex in the confrontation between the uncomplicated but principled Franz and his cunning and clever military judge (a role brilliantly performed by Gary Merry). The chilling battle between good and evil is made all too real and the viewer is reminded of the battles of conscience ongoing in our own lives and the lives of thousands of others every single day.
In the end, it is through the lens of his fellow villagers that we remember Franz. Why can’t he just sign the dotted line? All the rest of us did. It’s a mere formality. We didn’t have a choice!
Deviant? Rebel? Hero? Whatever we think of men like Franz, in this play Sharon Jennings has carved and crafted a memorial to conscience — a healthy but haunting reminder of that freedom which always remains even when all others disappear.