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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OUR CLASS
at the National Theatre (Cottesloe)

TELLING A TERRIBLE TALE
By JOHN NATHAN

  Ph: Robert Workman

In 1941 the Jewish half of the Polish town of Jedwabne was murdered. In 2009 the massacre is central to a huge political row in Britain and a remarkable new play at the National.
 
What was different, though not unique, about this particular atrocity was that it was not carried out by occupying Germans, but by the Polish neighbours of the Jewish victims. Many were burned to death in a barn. 
 
The row concerns the former Polish MP for Jedwabne, who in 2000 opposed his president’s apology to Jews for the massacre and, despite accusations of anti-Semitism, has since become leader of an important political group in Europe while controversially receiving the backing of Britain’s Conservative Party.
 
As that increasingly sordid argument rumbles on, the world-premiere production of Our Class by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobozianek—given a lively and casual English translation by Ryan Craig—serves as a dignified and devastating counterpoint.
 
Though Jedwabne is never mentioned by name, the play's premise is that many of the town’s Catholic perpetrators and Jewish victims would have shared the same classroom as children.
 
Slobodzianek has turned to the form used for many a play rooted in the Holocaust—that of testimony. It is never clear in what forum this testimony is told, nor does it matter.
 
Fast-rising Anglo/Iranian director Bijan Sheibani, who burst onto London’s theatrical landscape with a superb Young Vic production of The Brothers Size, stays true to that paired-down vision.  No kitsch recreation of a Polish town here, just a rectangle space around which Slobodzianek’s ten Jewish and Catholic characters patiently wait for their cue.  
 
We first encounter them in school where they play, bicker and cruelly tease, as all children do. They are aware of their Jewish/Catholic differences but there is more that unites than separates. They sing the same nursery rhymes, and bashful boys such as Rysiek, the son of a Catholic builder, make clumsy advances at girls such as Dora, the daughter of a Jewish merchant. But as these children advance into adolescence and adulthood—taking with them the classroom dynamic, its hierarchy and its relationships—they are increasingly buffeted by the forces of nationalism, communism, Nazism and anti-Semitism.
 
Political context is crucial here. But it is never allowed to distract from Slobodzianek’s central lesson—that it is not politics that kills, but people.
 
We brace ourselves as the play builds to the terrible event that inspired it—the barn burning. The moment is delicately depicted. As designer Bunny Christie’s ceiling claustrophobically lowers over the acting space, the event is shown through the perspective of just one victim, that of Dora (Sinead Matthews), who holds her baby close as smoke billows around her. “This is life?” she asks.
 
True, you would have to be a writing dunce to fail to move with such material. But it’s Slobodzianek’s ability to manipulate the role of the audience, not just move it, that suggests a masterly hand.
 
We are a jury listening to several versions of events. But we are also witnesses to those events, as are the characters who listen to other versions of their own story.

 


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