There is one terrifying incident at the centre of this powerful but only partially engrossing new Polish play that tracks the lives of ten school friends in the small town of Jedwabne in the north east of the country.
On 10 July 1941, the town’s Jews, half the population of 3,000 people, were murdered during an eight-hour pogrom, many of them herded into a barn and burnt alive. The question of responsibility, leading to sharp divisions between the Catholic and nationalist communities, rumbles on today, dragging many books, documentaries and films along with it.
In Our Class, the 54-year-old playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek challenges his country’s memory of the atrocity but leaves most options open. So sensitive is the issue, that the National’s production – in a version by Ryan Craig from a literal translation by Catherine Grosvenor – is a world premiere.
A group of ten children are first seen, aged five or six, recounting what they want to be when they grow up: a shoemaker, a fireman, a teacher, a wagon maker. They tell their stories in the third person as they watch films, go dancing, welcome the Red Army, scatter before the Nazis, fall in love, memorialize their lost ones, apportion blame, recover their identities.
It’s a harrowing tale, but Bijan Sheibani’s three-hour production is a fairly cool and collected chronicle, staged in a sunken oblong pit designed by Bunny Christie and trimmed with neon lights as the roof descends at the moment of horror to the sad accompaniment of a lone accordion.
We think of modern Polish theatre from Jerzy Grotowski to Tadeusz Kantor as much more impassioned than this, much darker and more spiritual. An adept English cast playing Jews and Catholics, friends and lovers, is better able to convey the detail of the story than the soul of the community, but they do so with great accomplishment.
There is the question of who killed Edward Hogg’s Jakub, or harboured Paul Hickey’s Menachem, who was the traitor and who killed the baby. Sinead Matthews and Amanda Hale, idiosyncratic comic actors, give different accounts of survival, while Justin Salinger, Tamzin Griffin and Jason Watkins present characters at once invaded by and in flight from a stain of grim reality that spreads across the century.