Mary Woodward Review

Arandora Star Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

Arandora Star, Scottish Storytelling Centre,

**** (4 stars)

On July 2 1940 the SS Arandora Star, carrying interned Scottish-Irish men, German prisoners of war, Austrian Jews, British soldiers to keep “order” and a full crew was torpedoed and sank with the loss of some 700 lives.  This play by Raymond Raszkowsi Ross, directed by Donald Smith and performed by Theatre Objektiv, explores the events leading up to the disaster and its devastating effect on the Italian community in Scotland who not only lost loved ones but were left in ignorance about their fate.

Oreste Valente and his wife Donata decided to leave rural Italy and settle in Scotland, working hard to establish and run a chippie, and delighting in the birth of their wee daughter Maria.  We meet Donata and Maria as they try to find out from the local policeman where Oreste has been taken.  We know, but they don’t, that all Italian men have been taken and interned and many will ultimately be transported: they can’t understand why the sergeant can’t give them any information, but hides behind the smokescreen of “it’s not a police matter.  Oreste is interrogated by the British military, and then interned in an overcrowded building hideously unfit for purpose.  He and the friends he makes can’t understand why old men, priests, ordinary shopkeepers (many with sons in the British army), and Austrian Jews who have sought sanctuary in Britain are seen as threats to the nation.  He worries about his wife and child, and wonders what will happen to him next.

The narrative switches between WW2 and 1964, when orphaned Maria Valente is arrested after being deported from the USA and interrogated about her movements and actions.  She is investigating the Arandora Star disaster, and has found a way to gain access to what her interrogator describes as ‘restricted’ documents, but which she regards as ‘suppressed’: why, she asks, is so much being kept secret so long after the event – what is being hidden?

We gradually realise that the major conducting the interrogation was involved in the tragedy: he knows too much about “good old Captain Moulton” not to have been closely involved.  The Captain was aware of the high risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats when crossing the Atlantic, and protested at the Arandora Star’s unsuitability for the job.  She was a luxury liner built to carry 350 passengers and was dangerously overcrowded; high barbed wire prevented access to the lifeboats; there was no protective convoy; and the government refused an application for a Red Cross for the vessel.  His protests were ignored: he chose to go down with his ship.  Newsflashes screamed that the German POWs and Italians fought each other rather than help in the evacuation of the ship: ‘restricted’ eyewitness accounts from survivors painted a very different picture.  Questions asked in the Houses of Commons and Lords were answered with a smokescreen of untruths…

Twenty years on, wee Maria is still feisty and red-haired, refusing to co-operate with the Major, aflame with her passion to bring the truth out into the open.  The Major tries to trap her into incriminating admissions and, when these fail, attempts to blackmail her into silence by threatening to ruin her future career.   Maria refuses to be bullied: she has lost her father, her mother died of a broken heart, and her brother Paolo died on the Normandy beaches: what has she left but her love for her family and her desire to expose the cover-up that made a mockery of people’s lives?

She challenges the Major’s assertion that “these things happen in wartime”, and asks him “Do you feel guilty at all?”  His response is “what use would there be in that?”  He is passionately wedded to the idea that his loyalty to his country overrides any considerations of humanity: she counters with the challenge that thereby he is losing his soul.  Their final exchange, as she refuses to be manipulated, sums her up magnificently – “the dead won’t be silenced”, she says.  He counters with “the dead can’t speak”, to which her retort is “then I will have to speak for them” – a sentiment just as valid today in the light of all the atrocities that are happening both at home and abroad.

This is a very powerful production from a magnificent cast, with outstanding performances from Gavin Paul as Oreste and Catriona McFarlane as Maria.  It witnesses to the men who lost their lives so pointlessly and lifts the veil of silence shrouding their fate.  Many of the members of the audience last night were members of that Scottish-Italian community, and their applause was whole-hearted and prolonged at the end of the show.

Arandora Star, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, Run Ends 26th May.

Review by Mary Woodward

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