Review of OUR CLASS at the Cottesloe, National Theatre

The history it covers is complex, but the staging of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s distressing new play (in a version by Ryan Craig) couldn’t be simpler. There isn’t a prop in sight bar the wooden chairs which are both the starting point and final resting place of Dora, Menachem, Heniek, Zygmunt and their fellow classmates who return from the dead to relive their lives from the moment they started school in 1925.

Stepping into the bare rectangular playing area, the five Jewish tots and their Catholic counterparts introduce themselves and their ambitions in childish tones, oblivious to the differences which are destined to determine their futures. But these children are from the Polish village of Jedwabne, where, in 1941, the sizeable Jewish population was virtually eradicated overnight – apparently not, as previously believed, by the invading Germans but, it is now claimed, by their own Polish neighbours.

As their country comes under the power of first the Soviets, then the Nazis, the fortunes and status of the ten Jason Watkins (Heniek) in ‘Our Class’. Amanda Hale (Rachelka – later Marianna), Sinead Matthews (Dora) and Lee Ingleby (Zygmunt). protagonists change, shift and overlap. There’s an occasional act of defiant heroism or unexpected kindness in the face of a mass determination to purge the town of every single one of the 1600 Jews, but, overwhelmingly, ignorance, fear and treacherously self-serving deception fuel the group mentality of brutal anti-Semitism and destroy the bonds formed in childhood.

Even the good fortune of Abram who sails to America in the 30’s and lives long enough to become the head of another dynasty to replace those who were lost is scant compensation for the dreadful fate of his Jewish classmates.

Fine, well-defined performances (including Lee Ingleby’s cold, calculating Zygmunt, Sinead Matthews’ Dora with unfulfilled dreams of becoming a film star and Jason Watkins’ creepy cleric) sustain the three hours of director Bijan Sheibani’s excellent production, and this grim but involving drama shows, tragically, that terrible deeds often reap far greater rewards than honourable ones.

Louise Kingsley. Courtesy of This Is London.