Dr Korczak was the pen name of a Polish author and paediatrician who ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw, which in 1940 was moved into the ghetto.
In 1942 when the children were put on trains to Treblinka, Korczak was offered the opportunity to escape, but instead he stayed with the children, and like them was murdered by the Nazis.
Korczak’s book The Right to Respect set out the rights of children and these and his other writings came to form the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
But set in the Jewish ghetto before the move to the camps Amy Leach’s production of Dr Korczak’s Example is a play where children are absent. Tiny shoes are placed around the edge of the stage.
The play answers the question, how do you retell the story of the Holocaust by plundering our knowledge of the tragic, fetishistic objects of the camps – the woollen blankets, the piles of shoes, the suitcases full of Jewish booty – and they litter the stage. At one point the young couple clamber kissing on a wooden frame that eerily foretells the bunks in the camps.
This is a drama that plays with absences and emptiness The set is composed of empty trunks and suitcases, an oversized wooden crate forms one wall of the stage. In a corner an empty cello case hangs from the ceiling clad in a Nazi greatcoat. This constantly changing set conveys the impermanence of ghetto life and gives the play its dramatic tension. The characters literally sleep in suitcases with the threat of something worse hanging over them. “Will we still be here in the winter?” one asks.
The action is framed by narratives that fill in the historical detail, we are continually reminded that this is a fiction, and the play revels in its truth-telling artificiality, its reality, like the suitcases, can be piled up and then easily dismantled. So while we are told that this story really happened, we are also told “Some stories if you tell them exactly, you end up telling a lie”. Everything but the historical facts is uncertain.
Despite a sweltering Arcola (1942 was a hot summer we’re told with a roll of the doctor’s eyes), the three performances are wonderfully energetic. Craig Vye as Adzio the thieving, amoral lad who challenges the doctor’s justice and children’s courts, is all over the stage and gives a likeable, twitchy softness to his confident cockney.
In a nice twist it is an accent that he reprises as the young Nazi who finally breaks up the orphanage. Amaka Okafor’s versatile performance is eventually a fine counterpoint to Adzio (there is an apple, they dance, they kiss), though frankly there is just not enough of her, good as she is.
But it is Philip Rahm reprising his Dr Korczak from last year’s Royal Exchange Theatre that, as with the doctor himself, holds everything together. He plays the part like a genteel Edwardian Englishman whose reasonableness gradually crumbles as the shadows gather. The performance, like the doctor’s example, is something constructed, driven by belief, a risky, humane, living thing.
Starting time: Monday – Saturday: 8pm
Saturday Matinees: 3pm
Friday 3 – Saturday18 July – £15 / £10 (concs)/ £7.50 (Under 13s)