Friday, 25 September 2009

OUR CLASS, National Theatre, 24 Sep 2009

It's always very, very exciting to go see a play with Justin Salinger in it. I have mentioned many times in this blog, but he is one of the most exciting actors on stage in Britain, only rivalled in talent by the likes of Andrew Scott or Joe Millson. The experience seemed even more auspicious by the presence in the cast of Lee Ingleby, of whom I've been a fan for years (even putting up with the whole run of George Gently in all its glorious boredom).

But the subject matter of the play put me off a bit and like the Tyro Theatre Critic (formerly the Teenage Theatre Critic) I arrived at the National full of doubts and

In the summer of 1941 1600 Jews were burned to death in a barn in Jedwabne, a small town in Poland. The culprits of this massacre were not the invading Nazi forces but the very own residents of Jedwabne, neighbours and friends (and classmates) to the dead. This is the raw material Tadeusz Slobodzianek uses to construct his Our Class.

It's tricky to start with real events and real people. If those events are framed within the Holocaust the risk is even higher. And I don't mean the risk of offending, playwrights shouldn't be weighted down by that, by any kind of moral opinion on their material. For me the risk is going the other way. The kind of respect, awe, solemnity, carefulness this kind of even inspires can seriously handicap a story and the storyteller. It often results in a thin, washed down product.

Fortunately for most of its duration (it's not perfect, this is a flawed play) Our Class seems to just fly over the weight of those precautions. There is plenty of powerful writing (and powerful translation, thanks to Ryan Craig) in here. For a start it is a very theatrical experience. It's probably my favourite set design of the season so far (kudos to Bunny Christie and to the lighting job from Jon Clark) because it is sparse as it is evocative: played in the round, over dark wooden boards with a low step of aluminium at each side. The lack of detail design makes the experience even more vivid, and one laments that so many plays nowadays take a stubbornly realistic view on set and design, understimating theatre's capacity for the metaphorical. In Our Class the characters speak directly to the audience in many occassions and the scenes change from location to location without needing to stop for set changes, and one can have many locations and actions developing at the same time. The austerity of the production, in this case, is its strongest asset. It lets the writing show and the very excellent (and large, ten main characters) shine.

(on a shallower note I have to say that I had very lousy seats, up in the second circle of the Cottesloe, result of me being a cheap shot and snatching the 10 pound tickets at the last minute; I intend to see this production again at some point so I'll try to get better seats in the stalls and check how the set works from closer to the actors)

I was worried about the duration of the thing as well, but the three hours went swiftly by. The play is dynamic and engaging, even if the last scenes drag on a bit; the final fate of the characters (and their families) are ultimately less interesting than the build-up to the massacre and the inmediate consequences of it. My favourite part was still when the tensions between the Catholic and Jews in the class start to show in subtle, unexpected way. From childhood friendship the characters get together and separate and clash. Political and historical pressures break up this group that wasn't so solid to begin with, with tragic consequences.

The play shows a wonderful touch of detachment through it all. One of the main dangers with this kind of story is to fall into the trap of cheap sentimentality. But despite the horrible events if depicts Our Class remains refreshingly unsentimental most of the time. That was a relief.

There's always a degree of scepticsm when confronted with a large lead cast, because it's impossible that everbody can mesure up and there's nothing worse than an unbalanced cast. But in this case everybody is surprisingly adequate - all performances are equally sensitive and low key and skillful. Some of the acting I took longer to warm up to than the others. Paul Hickey, as Menachem, I had reservations about during the first third of the play but it grew on me big time and ended up being one of my favourites. Edward Hogg and Jason Watkins were expectedly brilliant. Amanda Hale (whom I had seen and liked in Crimp's The City and who was part of the soon to be released Bright Star, with Ben Whishaw) makes a wonderful turn as Rachelka, who marries a Catholic classmate to save her life and changes even her name to escape the atrocities.

Justin Salinger was the constant (and unknowing) commentary as the schoolboy who goes to America and writes (and recieves) letters, all optimism and naivete, a clever theatrical aside as a character ignorant of what his former friends are going through, their crimes and their sufferings. Of course Mister Salinger is as flawless and challenging as ever, though his part was not as lengthy as I might have wished.

One might have wished, as well, that Lee Ingleby, who was absolutely perfect as the cruel and unforgivable Zygmunt, would be given a part outside his comfort zone - we have seen him play one too many degenerate and mean bastards (The Street, Life on Mars, Borstal Boy). Hopefully next time we'll see him do a likable hero in a comedy, like he did, charmingly so, in BBC's Rapunzel.

Bottom line, Our Class is a very good and enjoyable piece of theatre played by a group of terribly talented actors. It tackles very big issues without being sentimental or patronizing, and it casts a suspicious light on our very notion of history, our certainties about it.

Thoroughly recommended to any kind of audience.

As a curious aside, I spotted Harry Lloyd in the audience, whom weeks ago I had seen triumph at the Arcola in Ghosts. There was some chatting about his performance in The Sea last year and he told me he was going to be in The Little Dog Laughed next year. That's excellent news as we love us some Harry Lloyd in theatre any time. He is one of our favourites.

The Guardian.
The Telegraph.
The Evening Standard.
The Independent.

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