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A CurtainUp London Review
As the play opens the Jewish children are to one side of the square, the Polish children to the far end but then they cross the square and take up their seats in pairs in the classroom. We see the children introducing themselves, their name, the occupation of their father and what they want to be in life. So for example Dora (Sinead Matthews) says, "My name is Dora, my father is a merchant and I want to be a film star." Some are awkward and shy, speaking haltingly, others are self confident. Although adults play the children, it is sensitively done and the effect is charming.
The director has broken up this epic narrative with music, songs, chanting and dance. A folk dance with clapping and swirling handkerchiefs is followed by one Polish boy Rysiek (Rhys Rusbatch) being teased about his romantic feelings for Dora and both are held aloft on chairs as though they are bride and groom in a Jewish wedding. The playground is very physical as the children ape adult prejudices and the boys scuffle.
In 1935 Marshall Pilsudski dies and a new militant Polish nationalism emerges and the Catholic Church preaches hatred of Jews as Christkillers. One Jewish classmate Abram (Justin Salinger) announces he’s going to America and we then hear of him through his letters back to his home town. In 1939 Hitler invades Poland and ten days later the Red Army arrives in Jedwabne. Tensions emerge between the Polish nationalists and the Jewish community who are associated with the Communists and privation. In 1941 the Germans invade Soviet Poland.
Under German occupation, in the play a Jew, Jakub Katz (Edward Hogg) is accused of betraying his classmate Rysiek to the Soviet secret police and beaten to death by three of his Polish classmates at the instigation of Zygmunt (Lee Ingleby). The lovely Dora, newly married to the handsome cinema owner Menachem (Paul Hickey), is left alone at home with her new baby and attacked and raped by a group of her classmates. The whole Jewish population of Jedwebne, 1600 men women and children are herded into a barn, locked up and kerosene is poured over the barn and it is set alight. None of those in the barn lives. There are three Jewish survivors of the original class. Abram in America, Menachem has run away and is hidden by Polish farmer’s daughter Zocha (Tamzin Griffin), and Rachelka (Amanda Hale) has been rescued by Wladek, whom she marries after being made to convert to Christianity.
After the massacre, Abram unaware of this tragedy, continues to write from America with news of his rabbinical training and his growing family. We follow the survivors of the class, one of Jakub’s murderers Heniek (Jason Watkins) becomes a Catholic priest, Zygmunt continues to wheel and deal politically. Rachelka changes her name to the Christian Marianna and is given Jewish property as wedding presents by the looters who now are occupying Jewish houses and businesses. Every dish at her wedding breakfast, made by her horrid mother in law, has pork in it. After the war the Germans are blamed for the massacre. The second half sees a rapid history touching on Israel in 1971 where Menachem emigrates, Zocha in America, the fate of the mealy mouthed priest Heniek, the impact of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the recognition in the year 2000 of what really happened at the massacre in Jedwebne.
This harrowing story is staged with just the voices and movement of the actors. No scenery, no change of costume. As the barn burns, there is smoke and the gantry with a simple frame of light is lowered down towards the base of the stage which designer Bunny Christie has covered in old wooden floorboards and delineated with another neon light frame. In the second act a huge pile of grey ash reminds us of those that perished in the fire. This ash sticks to the clothes of those left behind. As the actors die they step outside the square but they return too as ghostly figures to haunt the perpetrators of the massacre.
The performances from this ensemble cast are of the very finest. I very much liked Sinead Matthews’ pretty and adorable Dora, Amanda Hale’s serious and sad Rachelka married in gratitude to a good man but uninspiring husband, Michael Gould’s Wladek, and losing her only baby after a few hours. Lee Ingleby’s Zygmunt is the scheming villain.
Sophie Solomon’s four piece band provide the live music. Credit must go to Bijan Sheibani for the dramatic variety he has injected into this remarkable story of courage, evil and denial. In 2001 Abram (his name changed to Baker by Ellis Island immigration) visits Poland and returns to the scene of the massacre. He tells us the names of his many, many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in a spirit of hope. Our Class is a piece of unforgettable theatre.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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