Thursday 18th April 2013
Leeds University Theatre Group (TG)
Directed by Jocelyn Cheek
It’s always difficult to remain impartial when reviewing your friend’s play, but I promise that this review will be just as honest and as ruthless as usual.
Our Class is dense, heart-breaking, and has few moments of respite. A historical drama as emotive as this is always a brave option to take when producing amateur theatre as nothing can be laughed off, and for this reason the production team and cast should be applauded for their intrepidity and commitment to serious storytelling.
The play is set between the USA and the small Eastern Polish town of Jedwabne, focusing on the time between the Soviet occupation and the social and psychological fall-out caused by WW2. Given the two different settings, I feel more of a distinction could have been made in terms of staging and design, although the interspersed letters of Alena (played by Elen Gibbons) were portrayed with a humble innocence that felt credible and went some way to bridge the gap. The use of the Jewish and Polish flags above the stage space was a brilliant way of signifying the racial-religious differences hanging over the cast, though I think that as a whole the play may have benefitted from a few more props – such as a pillow to represent the baby perhaps – in order to take the pressure off the actors in terms of mime. The costumes were neatly put together, well chosen and redolent of both the Eastern European peasant environment and the shabbiness of the characters’ morality.
It is difficult to provide a comprehensive summary of the plot, but what stood out from the intricate storyline was the way in which each character pursued their (often misguided) quests for identity. In particular, the transformation of Ryseik (Alex Light) from boisterous romantic to rapist and murderer was harrowing, and was made even more effective by Alex’s unassuming boyish demeanour and the way that he manipulated his face to reflect his tortured psyche. Whilst I found that the characters were slow to establish meaningful relationships to one another during the first act, they flourished beyond recognition in the second. Holly Heasman-Durham gave a spectacular performance in the role of Rachelka/Marianna, and was one of the most consistently strong and emotionally accurate actors in the cast, achieving the theatrical pièce de résistance of crying on stage. The relationship between Rysiek (Alex Light) and Dora (Lizzy Morgan) was difficult to determine until the second act, but their tragic and unrequited love for one another was portrayed with a sensitivity and tangible fear that was powerful. Other performances of note came, from Jake Williams (Menachem); Elliot Brough as the clueless but well-meaning Wladek; and George Howard (Zygmunt), whose acerbic cynicism was perceptible in every one of his words and actions.
I preferred the second act to the first because of the fact that the beginning of the play felt quite tepid and lacked impetus, possibly exacerbated by the long introductory scene in which we witness the children playing together, although the length of this was possibly due to the time that it took the audience to enter the space. The storyline moved slowly for the first hour of the performance, and whilst this is more of a criticism of the playwright than it is of the direction, perhaps (rights permitting, which I am aware, they probably weren’t) the first half may have benefitted from a touch of condensing. Towards the end of the first act the cast became more cohesive and the portrayed world gained an atmosphere of reality that is always recognisable by the hairs standing up on the back of your neck. The actors fully engaged with their characters; their terrible memories began to puncture the air around them as opposed to sliding into histrionics, as was the tendency in the first half. The physical theatre element of the performance was inspired. I would have liked to see it used more consistently however, as the moments that were portrayed in this manner, such as the caustic rape and barn scenes, had an ethereal gravity and fluidity that truly brought the cast together and reinforced the concept of ‘classmates.’
A lot also has to be said for the historical and contextual research that has gone into the production, on both the production team and the cast’s part. The traditional Jewish melodies were handled beautifully and added an element of authenticity to the production. I particularly liked how they opened and closed the performance, and brought the separated and broken cast together at the end. The subject matter of Our Class is delicate and disturbing, and the fact that it is historical reality makes true dramatic integrity difficult to achieve. However, I believe that the actors rose to the challenge and treated the material with the reverence that it demanded. As a whole, the production was immaculately rehearsed, creatively directed, and worked rigorously to bring to life the horrors of a past that will forever tarnish the reputation of humanity.
Image: TG Theatre Group