LONDON STAGE: (2009-2010) 'OUR CLASS' Send This Review to a Friend
One of the most important of recent plays in addition to being one of the most dramatically shattering, “Our Class” powerfully examines the 1941 massacre of 1600 Jews, more than half the town population, in Jedwabne, Poland and cuts through the original allegation that the atrocity was committed by the Nazis. “Our Class” fixes the blame on neighboring Poles. The play is by Tadeusz Slobodzianek and I saw the new version by Ryan Graig at the Cottesloe Theatre in the National Theatre complex. The work is not only deeply moving, but its examination of characters in the story based on real events becomes a primer on what people are capable of doing, attempts to cover up vicious deeds and the effect such events can have on perpetrators and survivors.
The memory play begins effectively in the 1920s with the adult actors as children in the same school class, which includes Catholics and Jews. From this image will grow a portrait of 10 class members and what happens to them. The first part of the drama chillingly recalls how Jewish men were slaughtered and women and children were locked in a barn, which was then set afire. Subsequently, we follow the stories of individuals in the aftermath of the crime and see the efforts to suppress what happened and the toll taken. What emerges is a panorama of human behavior as seen through a specific group from the same environment. In this context comes the historical revelation—the play is subtitled “A Story in XIV Lessons”—of what really happened in Jedwabne and the extent of anti-Semitism that has existed in Poland.
As staged by director Bijan Sheibani, “Our Class” plays out with an audience on four sides of the rectangular pit. When a character dies, the actor takes a seat on either end, but returns into the spotlight when they are in another character’s memory. Although the format makes for greater intimacy, there is something I often find with such arrangements. It can be somewhat hard to hear the dialogue sharply when an actor is facing in an opposite direction. But there is no denying the overall effectiveness some such setups can produce, as is the case here.
The cast is uniformly good, including Sinead Matthews as Dora, who is raped and burned to death with her child; Amanda Hale as Rachelka, who becomes a Christian after being saved by the man who becomes her husband; Justin Salinger as Abram, who becomes a rabbi after he manages to get to America, and Lee Ingleby as the horrible Zygmunt who is branded with the guilt of a betrayer.
As an aside, I find it annoying when a few people tell me that they heard how good the play is but don’t want to subject themselves to such a grim drama. And why not? After all, when so many people were victimized, the least theatergoers can do is to watch a play that brings the truth about the past to light, and in that sense, is a memorial to the victims. If it were a bad play, the shirkers would have a point. But this is a creative, engrossing, well written and stunningly staged work.