Monday, 6 July 2009

Dr Korczak's Example - Arcola Theatre

Dr Korczak’s Example By David Greig
Director: Amy Leach
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Dr Korczak’s example and Gandhi’s example were almost identical, both believing in non-violent protest against oppressive regimes. But where Gandhi’s example had a direct effect, Dr Korczak’s idealism was squashed under the sole of a Nazi boot. Focusing on the last days of Dr Korczak’s orphanage in the ghetto, David Greig’s play is dynamic and pacy but at too many points it is a like being spoon fed the truth with a little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down.

An inspirational figure whose work eventually formed the basis of The United Nations Convention on The Rights of Children, Dr Korczak was world renown for his work with children and deeply admired for his choice to go with them to their death, even though he could have escaped on numerous occasions. It is a shame therefore that in this piece he comes across as a dreamer and sometimes, seemingly, a complete innocent. At one particularly frustrating point instead of putting his children into the safety, albeit slight discomfort, of hiding in cellars he is adamant that nothing will happen to his orphans and that he cannot abandon them; an admirable thought which eventually leads to all their deaths.

It is hard for a modern audience to look on the horrors of the Second World War with anything but a weary acceptance that people really did enforce these atrocities on to one another. For the first part of this play it is therefore quite hard to buy into Korczak’s blind belief in humanity triumphing above all. Greig does begin to balance this with echoes of doubt starting to enter Dr Korczak’s conviction and with the strong will for violent defensive action which springs from the fiery street urchin Adzio, a new arrival to the orphanage, but the Dr’s blind optimism still grates on one’s common sense.

Director Amy Leach translates the story admirably onto the stage in a production which is imaginative and playful and the performances are all assured, with Craig Vye’s performance as the forceful but fractured Adzio being particularly compelling. There is a slight whiff of the patronizing however; as we are being told that ‘these characters are made up but they represent lots of people like them who were real’ it is hard not to wonder that surely children deserve to be given a little more credit for picking up on story points which aren’t handed to them on a plate. But for all this simplification this is still an effective show with some stunning visual moments; the fragile sunflowers representing each orphan are particularly emotive as is the cello case which forms the silent ever watching soldier as it’s occupant is played mournfully across an empty stage.

Leach has done a strong job at turning Greig’s slightly obvious text into a successful piece of theatrical storytelling. But with a script that seems to always take the easy road, this obviousness stops it from being a truly powerful piece of theatre; children see and understand a lot more than adults give them credit for, Dr Korczak understood that, it is just a shame that Greig hasn’t appeared to.

Photos: Jonathan Keenan
Dr Korczak's Example runs at the Arcola until 18th July 2009
frontpage hit counter