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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Our Class
Cottesloe Theatre     Autumn-Winter 2009

In July 1941 the mostly Catholic residents of the Polish village of Jedwabne rounded up their Jewish neighbours - by some accounts 1600 of them - locked them in a large barn and then set it on fire, killing them all.

They then entered into an unspoken contract of collective amnesia, alternately denying that the event ever took place and blaming it on the German army, and the truth did not come out until sixty years later.

Tadeusz Slobodzianek's play, here in a sometimes awkward translation by Ryan Craig, views this story through the prism of a group of Jedwabne schoolmates, first seen as children in 1926 and followed through the century.

And what he shows is that it did not take the Nazis to introduce murderous anti-Semitism into the Polish experience. Even the schoolkids instinctively split along religious lines, the Catholic kids singing half-understood taunting jingles they must have learned from their parents.

When the Soviets invade eastern Poland in 1939, the Christian residents turn their anti-Red anger against the presumed (on little evidence) Jewish collaborators, and Slobodzianek has three of his characters beat one of their former classmates to death in the town square, with no repercussions.

And then comes 1941.

All this is in the first act of the play, which also shows some balancing and complicating factors. A Catholic saves the Jewish girl he has loved since school in a single act of heroism that the rest of his life never matches, while a Catholic woman hides her Jewish lover through the entire war, only to have him desert her once he's safe.

A couple of the Catholics secretly collaborate in turn with both the Russians and Germans, betraying their friends right and left, and live to a comfortable and conscience-free old age.

A Jewish boy who left for America in the 1930s writes letters that demonstrate how little the outsider can comprehend the forces at work.

There is undeniable power in this story, most of it in the first half - the second act, racing from 1941 to 2000, is mainly a series of predictable and undramatic ironies as the surviving characters age and lead relatively uneventful lives.

But it lies almost entirely in the historical events themselves, with Slobodzianek's retelling offering little that is news and little that makes the facts any more moving or horrible than they are on their own.

Still, it should be said that those with some personal or family connection to this story, who are likely to make up a significant part of the audience, may find the retelling and dramatisation emotionally overpowering, and should be prepared to steel themselves.

Director Bijan Sheibani stages it inventively in the round, on an almost bare set, and the cast of ten generously serve the play without attempting to stand out as individuals.

Gerald Berkowitz

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