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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OUR CLASS
at the National (Cottesloe)

LIES AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
By MATT WOLF

  Ph: Robert Workman

Is it possible for subject matter to be so grim that it almost preempts criticism? By way of evidence, I point you toward the first-act finish of Our Class, Ryan Craig's English-language version of the Tadeusz Slobodzianek play about the Polish genocide of the Jews during World War II. By that point in the play we have long since met the room full of students—Catholics and Jews alike—who, as the years have advanced, have surrendered to the historical schisms that most playgoers will know before they even take their seats.
 
But suddenly and imperceptibly, the top grid of Bunny Christie's deceptively simple set begins to lower to the stage floor, Ian Dickinson's fearsome sound design kicks into gear, and before long one is witnessing the kind of simulated atrocity one associates with the movies but which in fact the theater, with far fewer resources, can also do scarily well. As directed by the fast-rising Bijan Sheibani with an understatement that only intensifies the story at hand, suddenly, we, too, are in that barn in 1941 in the small Polish town of Jedwabne where 1600 Jews were rounded up and slaughtered—an incident attributed for some while to the Nazis, for which all culpability in fact was revealed to lay at the Poles' own door.
 
This may already sound to some like Holocaust porn, a revelling in ugliness for its own sake at a time when many may feel as if on this topic they have seen and read it all, and there is no denying that Our Class is a grueling experience that one is unlikely to want to repeat anytime soon. But at a time when one increasingly feels as if the horrors of that period are increasingly trotted out in order to lend faux-gravitas to otherwise tendentious works—step up to the plate, The Reader!—this play for all its chronicle of cruelty serves an important task. At once a historical amendment to what we thought we knew and understood and a reminder of the inhumanity from which humankind sadly is never immune, the play for all its imperfections demands attention—all three, sorrowful hours of it.
 
That said, those imperfections are real, and they stem from a chronological narrative that by definition depends upon our investing in a stage full of characters who, for the most part, one can only revile. (The reportorial nature of the telling, too, can begin to wear.) There's hardly another response possible besides disgust faced with the thuggish Zygmunt (Lee Ingleby), who is first among equals in a once tight-knit community that over time comes to exist a hair's breath away from rape and torture. If there's someone whose tale is worth following at all, it's the Jewish Rachelka, who later becomes Marianna as her ethnicity is stripped from her as part of the deal she makes with life in order to survive. Amanda Hale is quietly, intently affecting in the role, not least by play's end as she speaks of having come to prefer TV to her own, entirely compromised existence.
 
Marking events with growing dismay from across the Atlantic is Justin Salinger's Abram, who in 1937 forsakes Poland to start anew in America, where he becomes a rabbi, his rejoicing in the sheer volume of his ever-growing American family's names a rebuke to a home country that has decimated the very people from which he sprang. Exceptional work, too, is done by the throaty, always vivid Sinead Matthews, still fondly remembered from the Donmar production of The Wild Duck, as one of the plentiful victims who after their deaths remain on stage, encircling the rectangular playing space. To that extent, it's as if Sheibani and Slobodzianek alike are reminding us that the dead remain to haunt the living, just as Our Class offers a corrective to history that will disturb those who can take it for some time to come.
 


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