What more appropriate place and time could there be to stage Dr Korczak’s Example. This moving and powerful piece is not only the first production to be performed at Bramall Rock Void in Leeds Playhouse but also it is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and timed to coincide with National Holocaust Day.
There can also be no more fitting city in the country to put on this work as its growth was assisted immensely by the large number of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. It was companies such as Burton Tailoring who provided employment for a large part of the city’s workforce in the last century. Being born in East Leeds everyone I knew had a relative or friend who worked at Burtons in fact in 1921 the premises on Hudson Road was the biggest clothing factory in the world employing 10,000 and producing over 30,000 suits per week. Oh, and there is the small matter of Marks and Spencer who originated in Leeds Kirkgate Market. Although they didn’t have their own factories, in 1977 over 90% of their clothes were manufactured in the UK providing a huge number of jobs. Like Burtons they also employed countless people in their retail outlets. Sadly the Jewish population of the city has declined rapidly but their legacy still benefits us.
Dr Korczak’s Example takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 where the eponymous doctor has set up an orphanage for children who are trapped inside the settlement by the occupying Nazi Army. The set comprises a small space with a sideboard, desk, two chairs and a radio as well as a number of small wooden figurines. The space is surrounded by rubble to convey the collapse of both the physical ghetto and its community. There are only three performers and the story is imaginatively told both through them and the use of the models.
As the audience enters the small, intimate theatre Rob Pickavance, who plays Dr Korczak, is sweeping rubble from the performing area which has the dual effect of showing the daily struggle to keep the orphanage open, and his fight to maintain standards. It also creates a cloud of dust which makes the already claustrophobic atmosphere even more ominous.
The play begins with an address to the audience by the lead to let us know that the story which is about to unfold is true although the two other characters are fictitious. We are then introduced to said characters, Stephanie, played by Gemma Barnett, and Adzio, Danny Sykes. Stephanie is the Doctor’s assistant and Adzio a young boy who has been stopped by soldiers for stealing two carrots. The consequences of this crime were vividly illustrated using a small puppet but Dr Korczak intervenes and, using two cigarettes as currency, effectively buys the boy’s freedom and takes him back to the orphanage. It transpires that he has been living a feral lifestyle sleeping rough and eating what he could find or steal. This has turned him into a rebel and through his actions the mechanics and philosophy of the institution are revealed. It is at this stage when Adzio and Stephanie form a bond.
Although food is short Adzio steals some bread and, when caught, he is told that he will appear before the Children’s Court where the other residents will decide his fate and the consequences should a guilty verdict be returned. Adzio is taken aback as he was expecting the Doctor to be in authoritarian command but it was explained that, as the residents have to live there, it is they who should run the place. The relevance of this becomes clear at the end.
The story is told by the actors adopting other roles with their temporary new characters represented by the wooden figures on the desk. There is the local Christian Priest and the Jewish Chief negotiator between the Ghetto and the Nazis. Mainly though, the figures represent the children.
There is another very effective way in which the feeling of the piece is conveyed, and that is in one-sided conversations Dr Korczak has with an unseen Nazi guard perched in a watchtower making sure that no one leaves the enclave. He propounds his theories to the guard and speaks the assumed responses.
The main crux of the piece is the conflict of attitudes between Dr Korczak and Adzio, the former putting his faith in the belief that if you do the right thing then others will follow, whereas the youngster has abandoned all his principles and wants to attack everything and everybody who poses a threat. Stephanie wavers in his direction as their bond develops. Adzio’s abandonment of his values is illustrated when Dr Korczak asks him what he would do if he ruled the world. He replied that he would skin Germans alive and then he would get his servants to make him a big breakfast of ham, eggs, more ham and still more ham. Not what you would expect from a good Jewish boy.
There are various announcements made over tannoys in the ghetto with instructions for the inhabitants to obey and Adzio’s theory of their being taken to the rumoured death camps is confirmed by the order that everyone is to go to the train station the following morning. Dr Korczak is offered a passport and safe passage but he marches to the station with his charges and boards the train. In the epilogue to the piece it is said that a witness described the discarded yellow armbands bearing the Star of David (which it was compulsory for all Jews to wear at all times) on the platform, as looking like a field of buttercups.
Stephanie and Adzio managed to escape but that hardly makes for a happy ending as they are fictional. The real people didn’t.
The legacy of Doctor Korczak is the Rights of the Child, a document written by him and hidden in the orphanage, which has been accepted by the United Nations who made it the basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I don’t think that I have ever written a review without a single joke in it but I really feel that levity in such a moving, and fundamentally horrific, piece would be wholly inappropriate. I thought that I would be in floods of tears by the end of this play, as many audience members were, but I found that it affected my thoughts rather than my emotions, unlike in the writing of the article today.
Every single aspect of this production was superb. The acting was moving, athletic and, at times, funny. The set was very imaginative, especially in the use of the models, and the sound, lighting and costumes were spot on.
The Director, James Brining hit the perfect balance in telling the story, conveying the gravity of the situation in which the characters found themselves but without being maudlin.
Please follow this link to see a summary the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Dr Korczak’s Example runs at Bramall Rock Void at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 15th February, 2020. The performance on 11th February will be followed by a discussion featuring Arek Hersch MBE, a Holocaust survivor.
Not wanting to leave out anyone involved in this production I have taken the liberty of reproducing the credits in full below.
All photographs by Zoe Martin
Feature Image provided by Leeds Playhouse