Dr Korczak’s Example
Until the 15th February, 2020
‘This happened,’ says Robert Pickavance as Dr Korczak in Leeds Playhouse’s Bramall Rock Void. This is no ordinary performance space. It has been recently dug out of the ground beneath the Playhouse, it’s walls comprising of exposed rock and brick. Tonight it felt as though we were witnessing something that had just been unearthed, as though we had just been escorted into the bowels of the earth to be reminded of something very important, a slice of the past that should not be forgotten. Pickavance stands amidst piles of bricks and dust hangs in the air as he attempts to sweep away the debris.
This production of Dr Korczak’s Example has been specifically timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. This isn’t a sanitised past of which we are being reminded. We are being grabbed by the collar and forcibly shown the wreckage. And through this performance, the three strong cast – Pickavance, along with Gemma Barnett as Stephanie and Danny Sykes as Adzio – show us exactly what came out of this wreckage.
Dr Korczak’s example is the story of Dr Korczak, a Polish Jew, who ran an orphanage in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto. It’s a simple story, rooted in small moments and the excellent cast sell these moments with ease. Adzio is rescued from the streets of Warsaw by Dr Korczak, who takes him under his wing. In his first few minutes in the orphanage, Adzio chases around the room, spitting chewed up pieces of paper at a fly in a vain attempt to end its ceaseless buzzing. As he does so, the other two members of the cast mischievously buzz at him as he grows increasingly agitated. It’s a small moment, seemingly inconsequential, but it cuts right to the humanity of the story and generates a playful atmosphere that continues throughout, despite the heaviness of the subject matter.
This is Danny Sykes’ debut professional performance, not that it shows. He delivers a strikingly assured performance that switches from aggressive and angry with the world in which he finds himself, to vulnerable, to full of the excitement and hope that Korczak and Stephanie instil in him. I would say that he is the beating heart of the production, but that is true of all three cast members, whose performances draw us in with their warmth and humanity. We feel their joy and fear; we share in their anger as they hurl pots across the stage to shatter on the wall.
At other points, however, we are pushed away in order to gain some valuable distance and perspective on the events being acted out. Pickavance breaks up the action with a series of conversations with an unseen German soldier, although it feels as though he is talking directly to us instead. We are all that one German soldier, and as darkness begins to gather around the orphanage, these one sided conversations grow increasingly angry and accusatory. We haven’t merely been invited into this space to be told a story, we are being very deliberately implicated these horrors.
It all feels uncomfortably timely – the increasingly vicious demonisation of a religious minority; empty promises made by the authorities that the characters blindly trust, whilst simultaneously understanding that these promises will be broken in the most horrendous ways; the public both accepting and enabling the shifting political climate. Draw your own conclusions, but on leaving the auditorium, it was impossible to not only feel moved, but to also utterly ashamed.
The simplicity of this production is the source of its power and it is a credit to both writer (David Grieg) and director (James Brining). There’s an awful lot going on here, it’s just that the working parts are hidden so well beneath the small moments (catching a fly, sharing an apple etc). The same extends to the fantastic set/ prop design.
At the centre of the stage sits a table littered with small wooden figures, lit from above by spotlight. These are used throughout the performance as stand ins for the other characters in the story and are both delightful and hugely effective as Pickavance, Sykes and Barnett inhabit these other characters via these models. They recreate huge historical scenes in miniature, giving us a birds eye view of events, whilst at the same time, we are huddled in a tiny room beneath the earth, wrapped up in those same events.
It ends as it began. ‘This happened,’ we’re reminded, before we leave the room to be presented with a leaflet entitled, The Rights of the Child, the UN Convention inspired by the beliefs of Dr Korczak himself, a reminder to take out of the theatre and embrace in our daily lives.