Our Class @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Tamzin Griffin, Amanda Hale, Edward Hogg, Sinead Matthews, Jason Watkins, Michael Gould, Paul Hickey , Lee Ingleby, Rhys Rusbatch, Justin Salinger

directed by
Bijan Sheibani
This world premiere by the Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, in an English version by Ryan Craig, is a powerful if harrowing experience. Our Class is an epic three-hour play covering the last three-quarters of Polish twentieth-century history, but focusing on ten classmates in a small town in which an unspeakable wartime atrocity occurs.

Although the town is unnamed, it is evidently supposed to represent Jedwabne in Eastern Poland, where hundreds of Jews were massacred in 1941.

For many years this pogrom was blamed on the occupying German Nazis but recently new evidence has controversially revealed that local Polish people were responsible.
The play follows five Jews and five Catholics from their school class in 1925, as harmonious tolerance gives way to increasing religious and racial tensions in the late thirties, and leads to betrayal, murder, rape and revenge during the war when the town is invaded first by the Soviet Union and then Germany. The suppression of the terrible truth in post-war Communist society eventually gives way to democratic freedom of information when the buried secrets of the past are finally unearthed.

Slobodzianek tackles some weighty, disturbing themes here but this is compelling and moving theatre. We first see the ten school-friends in the classroom sitting on chairs, introducing themselves and proudly announcing what they want to be when they grow up, such as teacher, doctor or film star little knowing that their innocent hopes for the future will turn out so fatefully.

When later some of them join the underground nationalist resistance against the Soviets, the loyalty of their friendship is destroyed by one of them informing to the NKVD while another one gets the blame, and then the arrival of the Nazis gives licence to virulent anti-Semitism, followed by uneasy peacetime secrecy and collusion amongst the survivors. Whether victims or perpetrators, all of their lives are haunted by the horrific experiences they have shared. Slobodzianeks tremendous drama is a massive indictment of the dehumanizing consequences of collaboration and denial, both for individuals and society.

Director Bijan Sheibani deserves great credit for making sure these big ideas are embodied in a fully dramatic way on stage: the show is fluid and dynamic, with plenty of action and movement. Performed in the round, with the characters often speaking directly to the audience, describing their thoughts and feelings, we become involved in the unfolding drama as witnesses to this historical tragedy.

Bunny Christies minimalist set features an illuminated strip around a wooden-floored arena (later scattered with powdered lime from the mass graves), with a similarly illuminated roof descending when the barn full of Jews is burned down. Good use is made of the only props, the chairs, with characters taking them to sit on just off-stage when they die. The show is touchingly punctuated by all the protagonists (dead or alive) occasionally singing school songs, a reminder of their collective childhood innocence, while Sophie Solomons stirring music is performed live by a Klezmer band, providing an appropriately Jewish quality.

The excellent cast work well together, as the changing relationships between the characters turn friends into enemies and comrades into conspirators. Jason Watkins becomes a hypocritically self-seeking Catholic priest with a stack of skeletons in his vestry, Lee Inglebys proud patriot masks a thuggish informer and Rhys Rusbatchs brave resistance fighter is also brutally anti-Semitic. Michael Goulds farmers heroism in saving the life of the Jewish girl he marries is later marred by a slide into alcoholic failure and vainglorious TV celebrity, while as his guilt-ridden survivor wife Amanda Hale loses her identity as she is forced to give up her name and religion.

Wannabe starlet Sinead Matthews is raped before being burned to death with her baby, and her surviving Communist husband Paul Hickey fails to get justice after the war and eventually kills himself, while Tamzin Griffins courage in hiding him is rewarded by his abandonment as she sinks into bitter despair. The brightest pupil Edward Hogg is the first casualty of the pogrom, with Justin Salinger escaping to America just in time where he fulfils his ambition to become a rabbi.

Slobodzianek probably tries to fit in too much historical context throughout the protagonists lives, and after a gripping first half the play becomes rather unremitting in the way that virtually all of them end miserably disillusioned. However, even if Our Class is not for the faint-hearted, it is so brilliantly written and skilfully staged that it stands out as a memorable night in the theatre. The fact that it has been premiered here rather than in Poland may be significant.

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