When James Brining was running a children’s theatre company twenty years ago he probably never thought that he would be once again reviving Dr Korczak’s Example remembering one of the Holocaust’s unsung heroes.
Janusz Korczak was a world-renowned teacher and educator forced to move his orphanage into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. There he educated his children trying to shield them from the worst excesses of their oppressors, and staying alongside them until the bitter end.
Brining is now Leeds Playhouse Artistic Director and originally commissioned this three-hander from playwright David Greig to tour local schools in Scotland. The simple staging allows fierce debates about how to deal with horrors around them between the educator, one of his teenage charges Adzio, who is more aware than the other children of what is coming, and Stephanie who helps the good doctor keep some sense of order in this living hell.
“Korzcak was this fascinating, inspirational figure, a man who was very progressive in the first half of the last century,” says James Brining fresh from rehearsals. “He educated children, looked after them, believed they should be taught, and then had to be in the Warsaw Ghetto during that terrible period of time.
“David Grieg formulated the notion of how the play would work, so I suppose at the heart of the play, of course, it is about the Jewish Holocaust, but it’s also in a way more fundamentally about the challenge of how one responds to oppression and totalitarianism.”
It is to Greig’s credit so early in his writing career that he doesn’t offer easy solutions to the incredibly complex decisions the starved people in the ghetto faced about how what to do as people disappeared from their prison on trains heading eastwards never to heard of, or seen, again.
“Does one respond with a humane inspirational patience, as it were, as Korzcak sort of believes that by acting with humanity one humanises the world. Or does one take direct action, does one fight, which is what Adzio does.
“The play doesn’t answer that question, but presents the tension between those two ideas, which one of the reasons I think it is quite profound as it doesn’t try to simplify or sum up, so leaves the audience to have its own relationship with those events.”
Over the years Brining has done plenty of research meeting two of the slowly diminishing band of Holocaust survivors who survived the ghettos and death camps. Korzcak’s orphanage was home to around 200 children, but Brining and Greig haven’t included them in the cast instead relying on three dolls to portray them and other external forces that will decide their fate.
“I’ve just done a rehearsal scene where a Nazi officer comes in and threatens the leader of the Jewish community in the ghetto. For an actor to put on a Nazi officer’s uniform and come in it is so easy for that to be inherently crass. The dolls are a very interesting production technique that distance, but allows some simplistic storytelling, and it is set in an orphanage, so these dolls are reminiscent of childhood in a way.
“It is a pragmatic decision, but in the event becomes quite a fruitful one, and there is a sort tenderness in these children becoming represented by dolls.”
This is Brining’s fifth go at this play partly inspired by an intense session he had with the Playhouse’s Youth Theatre where as the oldest person in the room he read the part of Korczak. The 2020 version is designed by Hebden Bridge based Rose Revitt, who won the commission by winning the prestigious Linbury Prize for design, but was also driven by something that really troubled Brining.
“The trigger was that about a year ago I heard this incredible statistic that about 18% of people in Britain said the Holocaust had been exaggerated, and something like 12% of people said they didn’t think it actually happened,” recalls an incredulous Brining.
“I just found that absolutely staggering because when I was at school, and growing up, it was such a present thing in one’s mind as the most appalling example of the horror of that kind of oppression and violence. I almost couldn’t believe it, I wanted to open it around Holocaust Memorial Day, because the profound significance of this kind of story needs to be told.”
Another factor in bringing this play back was Brining directing Grieg’s later play Europe at the Playhouse that focuses on migration across our continent that has echoes of Dr Korczak’s Example, Leeds born actor Rob Pickavance played lost soul Sava in that, and now Brining has cast him as Korczak.
“When I did Europe that brought the play back into my mind as it was written by David Greig, and the character played by Rob in Europe really reminded me of Korczak. I remember saying to Rob that his character is very like Korczak, and thinking he would be brilliant in it.”
One of the inspiring aspects of Korczak’s story was he was offered numerous chances to escape the Ghetto, and legend has it the orphanage director was even was offered a way out by a Nazi officer as he waited for the train to take him to Treblinka. He said no refusing to abandon the children standing around him on that bleak platform, so does this play touch on why he made that extraordinary sacrifice?
“Hopefully when people see it seems like the only possible answer that he would give. What the play does do is challenge his view of the world, and he questions his own choices, so on a profound level the play explores the conflict between progressive liberalism and what’s in tension with that which is fascism, totalitarianism, oppression and cruelty.
“There’s a brilliant speech where the young guy who is very challenging to Dr Korczak describes the only way to survive is to rob, steal, cheat, to lie and to fight which the only way to live. He says I wouldn’t be alive, but Korczak says in a world like that what would be the point, which is a really profound question.”
Dr Korczak’s Example is in the Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, from 25th January to 15th February. To book www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk or 0113 213 7700.