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Our Class

Tadeusz Slobodzianek, in an English version by Ryan Craig
RNT Cottesloe
(2009)

Production photo

Starting in the mid-1920s, Our Class follows the lives of a class of Polish children through the next eight decades.

The happy, united children of the first ten minutes subsequently endure and perpetrate some of the most horrendous crimes against man that can be imagined, in a shocking but deeply moving reminder of the way in which Europe became a charnel house in the middle of the last century.

Through the remaining three hours, almost like an Agatha Christie novel, the ten classmates are picked off one by one, often in internecine struggles owing much to collective guilt.

Award-winning director Bijan Sheibani, who is rather more used to the Arcola than the National, turns the Cottesloe into something similar in this bare, Brechtian interpretation viewed in the round.

Bunny Christie's set seems like a shallow, empty swimming pool without props until you notice the tops of walls high above. Gradually, the significance of the setting creeps up to full realisation in the play's central scene.

By then, the happy innocents have divided into two groups, Jews and Poles, the latter soon flexing their muscles with horrible results. In a society where everything is uncertain as Russians and then Nazis join the anti-Semitic local thugs for a pogrom, everyone is an informer. Indeed, the first horror involves the beating of a Jewish boy for a crime committed by someone else.

However, this pales into insignificance when the unnamed town's 1,600 Jews are herded into a barn and torched. The massacre cannot be forgotten after the interval, since the actors are obliged to move through a floor of grey ashes. Thus, for example, the wedding dance of a converted Jewess and her rescuer takes on chilling poignancy.

A crime like this lives on forever in the minds of those involved, on whichever side. While the class's dead literally line the playing area, calmly observing a future that has been denied them, the survivors do not always flourish.

Our Class does more than consider a small group. At least obliquely, it also follows the history of Poland in the Twentieth Century. One of the play's strengths is that it manages to view society and the impact that seemingly minor changes can have on individuals, with relevance heightened where they have been involved in horrific experiences in earlier life.

There is more than a little irony in the final grouping, a rabbi who escaped to America before the war, a priest with a past and the Catholic former Jewish woman saved by a husband in the one and only heroic gesture of his otherwise worthless life.

The ensemble, under Sheibani's measured direction are superb, pulling at the heartstrings as often as shocking but lightening the atmosphere wherever a little dark humour is possible. Each has a chance to shine, the most powerful speech delivered by Justin Salinger as the Rabbi Abram, with Jason Watkins playing a Priest without conscience or apparently religion, Sinead Matthews and Rhys Rusbatch each making memorable contributions.

Ryan Craig's English version of Tadeusz Slobodzianek's Polish original achieves its goal in portraying evil to stunning dramatic effect and leaves viewers shaken but much wiser. It should be required viewing to prevent horrors of this kind from happening again, although somewhere, some time soon, they inevitably will.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher