Review: Our Class, National Theatre

Our Class is a blistering look at the Polish collusion in the atrocities of the Second World War from Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, presented here in a new version by Ryan Craig (although given this is a world premiere and someone else is credited with the literal translation, I’m not quite sure what ‘version’ actually means). Taking the Jedwabne massacre as its focal point, a massacre of the entire Jewish population of a village long thought to have been carried out by the Nazis but recently discovered to have actually been the actions of the local Polish people, the play is an attempt to try and understand how the villagers could have turned on each other in such a way and subsequently kept the terrible secret. It does this by following a class of Polish schoolchildren, some Catholic, some Jewish, starting in 1925 and working its way through to the modern day.

I have to admit to initially having my doubts as the play opened with adults pretending to be schoolchildren which is never nice to see, but there was enough humour present to see the scene through as they all talked about what they wanted to be in the future. The cast of ten actually play their characters throughout their lifespan and so my doubts were quickly dispelled as the classmates grew up throughout the 1930s with the twin shadows of Soviet and Nazi invasions shattering their childhood dreams and ultimately setting them against each other to brutal effect.

This is powerful, moving, unflinching stuff that will stay with me for a long time. It is so easy with hindsight to say what one would have done in the face of the evils of fascism and war, and what this play does brilliantly is to highlight the difficult decisions and unimaginable sacrifices that many had to make just to even survive to the next day, and then their struggles to reconcile those choices after the fact. Each of the ten characters is given their moment to shine, and so whilst this had an impact on the running time (3 hours with interval), it meant that one was fully engaged with the entire piece and everyone in it. As one by one they passed away, they took seats on the edge of the stage on the chairs that had previously been used in the schoolroom scenes, and they too watched the rest of the events unfold. I really liked the use of chants to punctuate the scenes, they added an urgency to the proceedings which maintained the heightened sense of tension.

The Cottesloe has been reconfigured into the round (or more accurately the rectangle) and this setting worked perfectly: sat on the front row I almost felt part of the action and completely immersed into the intimate atmosphere with the barest of sets and minimal effects. I would very much like to see more productions here use this staging format as it really enhanced the experience and it was the first time I had seen it used this way. It seems unfair to single out any of the cast as they were all excellent, delivering strong, honest performances which always felt truthful, no matter how horrific: that said, Lee Ingleby was just terrific as the manipulative Zygmunt, and Amanda Hale and Tamzin Griffin both impressed, particularly with their struggles to deal with life as survivors after the war. But the quality of the ensemble really was excellent throughout, and given this was a preview, all the more impressive.

Haunting, brutal and sometimes painful though this may be, this is important, powerful work and I could not recommend it more.

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