The persecution of the Jews over the course of the 20th century is no easy task to condense into a play. Nor is it an easy task to bear witness to over the course of three hours in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s new play in a version by Ryan Craig whilst holding heavy subject matter it is hard hitting, thought provoking and finely acted.
I had my doubts about Our Class within the first few minutes. My initial reaction was, ‘not another play where adults pretend to be children’. There is nothing worse, often sending shivers down my spine, to see grown actors attempting a mocking childs voice and mannerisms. However there is something quite compelling with the start of the play, it sets the tone and links directly with the title and theme of the play: a close knit school class and their inevitable future living through multiple regimes.
Our Class is a tough play to watch, its dialogue is brutal, hitting the points of torture and endurment of a ethnic group being persecuted for their origins. There is nothing happy about genocide and Tadeusz Slobodzianek doesn’t try to convey the light hearted approach, there is no humour, just the knowledge that this did happen, (and in some countries, still happening).
What I admire about this production is my inability to highlight a single actor who stood out to be praised. Our Class isn’t about exceptional acting abilities – it is performed with the ensemble at heart, and what a better way to feed into the key themes. They sing folk songs, recite nursery rhymes in unison and dance in circles on the wooden floor of the Cottesloe Theatre.
Spanning some 60 years, Our Class tackles a fascinating subject, that any person with an interest in Polish history would thrive off. At times the play is a little heavy with its emphasis of dates and times to which the story is winding between. Yet it is the narrative based text that drives the piece, action is minimal here. It’s almost a Greek tragedy for the modern tragedies of our time. We hear of the violence, the horrific torture of the Jews against the catholic villagers. If there is action, – fighting between characters, Bijan Sheibani’s direction creates the brutality with words not physical contact. The words and dialogue are the weapons of this play.
Our Class whilst being simple in its stage design by Bunny Christie, it is a complex piece. The development of the characters over the span of their lives gain increased intensity as guilt emerges, claims are made against them and ultimately their deaths lay before them. Our Class resonates through us so truthfully because, although we may not have first hand experience of War Crimes and Genocide, we all know of them. It’s something that hangs heavy over Europe from the second world war, and further afield today.
One thing I struggled with slightly was the length of the play. At 3 hours with one interval, the second half seemed to drag slightly. Whilst I understand that for us to understand the paths of the characters, and where they end up you need this length, I couldn’t help to think that some 20 minutes of editing could have brought the running time down. The brutality of the spoken action is less so in the second half, and instead the various monologues of action take over. The actors sliding between themselves to fulfill the narration.
The narration of Our Class is without doubt energised and emotional. Careful pacing has been executed with the actors, giving at times remarkable outcomes, twisting and turning through the individual stories. Yet what Our Class needs is a change in direction or tactic. The monologues are delivered with force, but after 2 hours, you want something different, a change of dynamic. Having said this, it doesn’t make for a poor performance.
It is remarkable how gripping this production is. Perhaps it’s the subject matter, or perhaps the acting and directing? Whatever it is, Our Class is gripping, bursting with emotion, with a deep sense of understanding and knowledge that humans are vile, horrid creatures at times.
Our Class is playing at the National Theatre in the Cottesloe Theatre until 12th January 2010, tickets are still available through their website and box office.