Dr Korczak’s Example

David Greig
Leeds Playhouse
The Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

Robert Pickavance and Gemma Barnett in Dr Korczak's Example Credit: Zoe Martin
Danny Sykes and Robert Pickavance in Dr Korczak's Example Credit: Zoe Martin
Gemma Barnett in Dr Korczak's Example Credit: Zoe Martin

When a story unrolls towards an end we all know and agree in advance—no matter how horrific—it takes on the force of ritual. This is the form and power of David Greig’s 2001 play, situated in the Warsaw ghetto as the Nazi occupiers round up, confine and then ultimately exterminate the Jewish population.

Programmed to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and 75 years after the end of World War II (the time when these programmes of unthinkable mass murder started to come to light), this production marks a return to the play for James Brining, who originally commissioned it during his tenure at TAG young people’s theatre.

It was designed to tour schools, inviting debate and instruction in an echo of Brecht’s Lehrstücke. In this production, there is an opportunity for an expanded design, with the Linbury Prize in support. Rose Revitt’s sympathetic and evocative use of the space is immediately striking. The set meshes with the bare brick of the still new Bramall Rock Void, such that we seem to be sitting with the characters in a partially-destroyed basement room.

As the house opens, Rob Pickavance’s Korczak is sweeping the debris and dust away. When he completes the task, two others enter from behind the audience, dressed in casual, contemporary clothes. They take off sweaters and don the costumes which await them onstage, and the story begins.

The production thus emphasises the text’s averral that this is a fiction. The actors talk to us before the characters do, to tell us that it’s only through recounting such stories that we might reach the truth. So Korczak was real, but the two other main characters, the children Adzio and Stephanie, are inventions of the playwright, based on countless stories of the Jewish orphans taken into Korczak’s care.

The stage is also populated by a number of small mannequins, standing in as avatars for the range of characters evoked in the plot. It’s a simple device with a number of effective moments, particularly at the opening and close of the piece.

Greig’s text does settle into a more conventional narrative, which I found at times overly schematic. So Adzio (Danny Sykes) is a spirited tearaway, resistant to Korczak’s endlessly patient attempts to impress a pacifist sense of justice upon the children in his care. Stephanie (Gemma Barnett) is a more mature young woman, obedient to Korczak but drawn to Adzio’s nervy, impassioned energy. That they are drawn together seems inevitable, and the play follows this somewhat predictable arc.

Barnett is for me the pick of the three actors, her more restrained intensity counterpointing Sykes’s anger and Pickavance’s unpredictable (but always compelling) vocal twists and turns. The most interesting content of the play is that around Korczak’s incredibly progressive approaches to the education and discipline of the children in the orphanage. Most notably, he creates a system of trial whereby the children assess alleged transgressions by their peers; this is placed in stark contrast with the summary and arbitrary justice doled out by the police and soldiers keeping them immured in the ghetto.

Yet the morality of the court scene itself I found confusing. The children (we?) are invited to speak up on behalf of Adzio when he’s accused of stealing another child’s bread. The only one willing to do so is Stephanie, who grudgingly proclaims that Adzio had done something nice for her earlier that day, whereupon Korczak intervenes (counter to his previous explanation of the court’s workings). We hear nothing of the substance of the case; so what’s the lesson? The blurring of this point, and its depiction as a moment of closeness for Stephanie and Adzio and the opportunity to bring wayward Adzio back into the fold, seemed to run counter to the play’s broader ideals about the importance of a moral code and the rights of the child.

On the other hand, one of these—movingly evoked at the play’s climax—is the right to make mistakes. And perhaps this is where the play is truly at its most Brechtian: the saintly morals of Korczak are, ultimately, laudable but not indisputably the right course of action. The most compelling dramatization of this moral conflict comes when Adzio confronts the man, arguing that the only justice to which the Nazis will submit is that of the knife or the gun. I yearned for a bit more of this more complex debate: is an eye for an eye justified in the face of such amoral oppressors?

So, overall, I found the drama somewhat thinned without the debating space of the schoolroom or village hall. But ultimately, the essence of ritual is to reinforce cultural memory; to make sure we remember. It is in this light that the play is important.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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