Writer: David Greig
Director: James Brining
“This story happened” we are told at the start and end of the play. The poignancy of the three words that bookend Scottish playwright David Greig’s Dr. Korczak’s Example gives it an extra level of importance around the time of Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Commissioned twenty years ago by the now Artistic Director of Leeds Playhouse, James Brining, this three hander has a revival in the new, intimate Bramhall Rock Void studio space.
Dr Janusz Korczak, an educator, writer and Jew in 1942 Nazi occupied Warsaw runs an orphanage in a German imposed ghetto slum. Fighting for the basic necessities for the 200 children in his care he often finds himself robotically insisting things will be “fine” despite knowing deep down things probably will not be. Adzio, a boisterous and angry sixteen year old boy saved by Korczak from being shot after stealing food comes into his care, and the play is a hymn to hope, the beauty of liberty, the power of defiance and the rights of children. Korczak’s thinking, and example communal orphanage with its progressive ideas (such as the notion of trial by juvenile peers), later became the basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – something every audience member is handed on leaving the theatre.
This is an incredibly powerful and affecting piece of drama. Greig’s writing is economic. There is about as much fat on this eighty minute piece as there was food in the ghetto. Brining directs with simplicity. It is easy to see how the play once had a life in school halls. The three actors introduce their characters – fictional in the case of the children Adzio (Danny Sykes) and Stepanie (Gemma Barnett) but based on fact as we begin to learn about the sacrifices Dr. Korczak (Rob Pickavance) made for the children in his care. The simplicity is distilled down to dolls or wooden figures being manipulated to convey extra characters or to portray a more complicated scene than a cast of three can achieve. The effect allows simple and easy storytelling akin to that aimed for a younger audience, juxtaposed against a horrific panorama. The cast occasionally roleplay other extraneous characters integral to the story – the SS guard, the priest, the Jewish elder tasked with organising the ghetto. Yet, all the while, Brining directs with true believability as characters morph from doll to actor and back again without accent, costume or caricature. The modesty here is key as it frees up the words and allows the actors to simply tell the story. The work is done in the writing.
Returning to Leeds Playhouse after being part of last season’s ensemble cast, Rob Pickavance plays Dr. Korczak. He is wonderful casting as he has the ability to move an audience with a pause or a catch in his throat. Pickavance is a master of effortless looking acting. His young companions Gemma Barnett, playing orphan come orphanage assistant Stepanie, and Danny Sykes, playing the damaged Adzio, are equally up to the task as all three performers remain onstage throughout. Rose Revitt’s brick blasted set is strewn far back into the studio space’s depths – a cacophony and chaos of red brick and rubble of the ghetto to contrast with the simplicity of the storytelling.
Dr. Korczak’s Example has a recommended age of 12+ and twenty years after it was first staged still feels like an incredibly important piece of theatre – not just because of the recent remembrances and anniversaries but because human rights (and especially those of children) are a timeless concern. Greta Thunberg is perhaps the modern example that children have the right to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect. This is a deeply affecting play with a haunting message and a reminder that simple storytelling in theatre is often the most powerful.
Runs until 15th February