Once again that disclaimer about how this is a preview (press night is tomorrow) so the production is not officially open to reviews yet, but in this case I certainly won't feel guilty about reviewing a preview 'cause I'm going to say nothing but good things. (Well except that at over 3 hours it's too long, but you would have known that when you saw it was a National Theatre production.) That aside, this is one of the shows of the year so far for me.
And it's one I wouldn't have gone to see if it wasn't for the cast - I was initially interested when I saw Jason Watkins (Being Human
's Herrick) was in the cast, plus I got to add another Harry Potter
actor to the collection with the inclusion of the fantastic Lee Ingleby. Otherwise I might have missed this, seeing as it's a weighty play about WWII atrocities. Tadeusz Slobodzianek's play is based on a 1941 incident when the entire Jewish population of a Polish village was massacred, an event considered to be a Nazi atrocity. Only in the last ten years was it revealed to what extent the Polish people of the village were responsible, a discovery that caused a massive scandal in Poland. So Slobodzianek seeks to find out what could have caused people to slaughter their neighbours, and takes as his framework a primary school class of ten children, 5 Catholic and 5 Jewish. All starting out as friends, tensions build up as they grow older and the village is invaded twice in a matter of years, first by the Soviets and then the Nazis. During the first occupation rumours grow that the Jews are aiding the Soviets (rumours largely put about by Ingleby's Zygmunt, himself the real turncoat) which by the time the Nazis arrive has opened the door to the other villagers' eventual actions.
It seems like years since the National remembered that the Cottesloe is actually a studio theatre, but luckily director Bijan Sheibani and designer Bunny Christie have noticed that the seating can be changed and set the play in the round, in a large wooden-floored schoolroom. The chairs they sit on in class as children later end up outside the room, and as the years pass and one by one the classmates die, they take their place on the periphery. I was in the front row so this close view of the staging may be one of the reasons I felt so involved in this show, but the whole production is excellent and all ten actors (they play the characters through all stages of their lives so the cast's ages range from early twenties to late forties) give arresting performances. As the opening scene has the ten "children" stand up and introduce themselves you get the familiar worry that you won't remember who they all are, so all credit to the performers for the fact that all ten characters very quickly establish themselves. And as if I didn't have enough objects of affection already I think I've found a new one in Rhys Rusbatch,
who plays Rysiek. When the actors aren't in a scene they tend to sit on the low wall surrounding the stage, and at one point Rusbatch sat right in front of me - let me tell you, I had to make sure my arms were tightly crossed over my chest to resist the temptation to touch the back of his neck. Or the back of his anything else for that matter.
So it's not always a comfortable play to watch (although there's occasional flashes of humour) but I think one of the reasons it worked for me was the format: Having them start as primary school children running around and playing games may have thematic relevance as we see what they want to be when they grow up, versus what they actually become; but it also means the show starts with a burst of energy which never goes away, leaving the whole thing suffused with tension. I hope the official reviews are good and that this becomes a hit. Personally, you can take this as a major recommendation if you get the opportunity to see it.Our Class
by Tadeusz Slobodzianek in a version by Ryan Craig is booking until the 12th of January at the National Theatre's Cottesloe stage.