But this play by the award-winning David Greig, based on a true story, doesn’t fill you with horror but with respect for the title character, Dr Korczak as he is portrayed as an individual of principle and courage.
Philip Rham shows us a complex man, determined to retain civilised standards in his orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto.His discipline, based on love, couldn’t be more different to that of the Nazis.
New boy, Adzio (Craig Vye) has suffered at their hands. But for Korczak’s intervention, he would have been shot for stealing a couple of carrots. This treatment has made him aggressive and rebellious but when he steals bread from another child, he finds himself facing a court run by the other children.
The most simple scene conveys a great deal, as at one point Adzio takes out his anger on a fly depicted on the cello by Rham who also plays a mournful Jewish melody at the start.The fly keeps escaping, something Adzio cannot do. Vye handles this scene incredibly well, evoking sympathy at every turn.
Amaka Okafor plays the sweet-natured Stephanie who helps the doctor run the orphanage and she is the only new addition to the cast since the play was first presented at the Royal Exchange two years ago.
Both young people show that, in these bleak circumstances, Jewish children could laugh, play and experience puppy love. Stephanie and Adzio are never portrayed as angels - quite the reverse – and, like other adolescents, they flirt a bit, too. It's refreshing to see this humanity, flaws and all, as so often we are just shown humble victims.
The simple design by Miriam Nabarro is very effective, as the 1940’s style leather suitcases illustrate the childrens' journey to the orphanage, situated behind wooden gates. She also uses dry ice and a horizontal ladder to indicate the train which ultimately takes the children and the doctor, who turned down freedom, to their deaths
After the war, Korczak’s notes are discovered beneath the floor boards and they become the basis for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
As the audience leave the theatre, they should mull over the words spoken at the beginning and end of this powerful and haunting production: “This story happened. It did happen.”