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Dr Korczak's Example review – Holocaust drama cracks under the weight of history | Stage

Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously claimed that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. It’s less well known that he later reassessed that statement, allowing that “suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”. We cannot speak of it, yet we must speak of it.

Dr Korczak’s Example – revisited by director James Brining two decades after he originally commissioned it – struggles under the weight of this burden. David Greig’s play about Warsaw orphanage director Dr Janusz Korczak, who tried to preserve safety and dignity for his charges in the nightmarish environment of the ghetto, is motivated by the desire to honour and remember while wrestling with the impossibility of representing the Holocaust.

Greig asks what place there is for principle in the hell of the ghetto. Dr Korczak’s (Rob Pickavance) commitment to tolerance and compassion is shown as a form of resistance, but his saintly idealism knocks up against the cynical street smarts of 16-year-old Adzio (Danny Sykes), who wants to go down fighting. Caught between the two is Stephanie (Gemma Barnett): a loyal member of Korczak’s community with a more pragmatic streak than the doctor.

The life of the Warsaw ghetto plays out amid the rubble of Rose Revitt’s haunting design, which makes it look as though a bomb has ripped through the brick walls of the Bramall Rock Void studio. There’s a powerful sense of the wreckage of history, in which tiny shards of hope – a child’s teddy bear, the blossoms of a plant – can just about be glimpsed. As demonstrated by the legacy of Korczak’s championing of children’s rights, occasionally some good can be salvaged from the debris.

Though movingly played by the cast of three, the drama is sometimes hobbled by its sombre responsibility towards the story it tells. As Brining’s production opens, with Sykes and Barnett entering through the audience in contemporary clothes, there’s the suggestion that it might more directly address the impossibility of its task, but this is never fully developed. As Adorno realised, suffering must be expressed – yet expression must fall short.

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