Dr Korczak's Example
The Royal Exchange Theatre Studio, Manchester
Dr Janusz Korczak was the pen name for Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish-Jewish children's author and paediatrician. When the Nazis crammed the Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto following their invasion of Poland in the Second World War, the orphanage he ran was rehoused there. Dr Korczak's Example by David Greig tells the story of how this upright man tried to maintain some vestige of civilised values in his institution within the Ghetto and how ,though he was offered various opportunities to save himself, he declined and accompanied the children in his care on to the train to Treblinka and extermination.
This powerful and cleverly assembled tale is told in the Royal Exchange Studio in 70 beautifully paced and skilfully acted minutes. Not a moment is wasted. The three actors slip in and out of various character roles and also share the narration for the play.
The action shows how Adzio, a young boy who has been socialised in the harsh and selfish world of the ghetto, is taken into the care of the orphanage. His struggle to adapt to the kind and humane world guided by Dr Korczak cleverly demonstrates the clash of values at the heart of the play. One key part of this is the children's court where the other orphans sit in judgement over any child who has transgressed. The staging of this is brilliantly simple. Ten or so pairs of shoes are arranged in a circle and are animated by a particular member of the cast.
Miriam Nabarro's design deserves special praise. The stage furniture is made up from ingeniously employed '40s style suitcases and the drama unfolds in between some wooden gates on one side and a wooden tower structure - filled with suitcases when not in use - on the other. The audience faces this from two sides giving a taste of the in the round experience so familiar to patrons of the main Royal Exchange module. Minimal is the watchword for the whole production. Another example of the clever stagecraft is in Dr Korczak's occasional challenges to an unseen German soldier represented by a suspended uniform and a lighting effect. This brilliantly shows how he tried to treat his oppressors with a respect and humanity that they denied to him.
Craig Vye, who plays Adzio, offers a passionate portrayal of a damaged child who wants to strike back at the world which has caused him such pain. Alexandra Maher as Stephanie the child who assists the Doctor in running the Orphanage shows a sensitive understanding of the struggle to maintain a semblance of order in the midst of chaos whilst being attracted by the retaliation which Adzio advocates. The two also beautifully handle the growing and moving attraction between these two young people in an increasingly desperate situation.
Philip Rham plays Dr Korczak with a powerful dignity. He movingly punctuates the action with his haunting solo cello playing and this adds to the poignancy and is a major asset of the entire piece. He expresses anger but will not give up hope that the values he so believes in and which have underpinned his life and work will eventually triumph. Though he marches with his children on to the touchingly effected train, the epilogue reveals that the children's rights that he championed were eventually incorporated into International Law.
Director Amy Leach balances action and reflection wonderfully well and gets strong performances from her expert trio. This flawless production is itself a moving example of ingenious staging of a well constructed story.
Running until June 21st
Philip Fisher reviewed this production (with a slightly different cast) at the Arcola in London in 2009