Dr Korczak’s Example review – lessons from the Warsaw ghetto

Leeds Playhouse
David Greig’s 2001 drama about the doctor who founded an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto continues to educate in this atmospheric production

The first thing we see as we enter is a heap of bricks and an old man, bent over, picking them up one by one and throwing them back on to a pile that straddles the border between stage and auditorium. We walk on by, take our seats. The stage is bordered by jagged, broken brick walls retreating into shadows. The man is moving the bricks so as to sweep a small central area in which stand, forlornly, a few items of worn wooden furniture: a bureau, a hatstand, a table (Rose Revitt’s design). A small group of doll-size mannequins is arranged on the table top, as if walking across it.

The whole adds up to a quietly powerful introduction to the play we are about to see, and an implicit challenge to us, the audience: will we engage, or will we metaphorically continue to walk on by? The man is Janusz Korczak; the space he is trying to tidy is the orphanage he runs; and the place of and beyond the broken walls is the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.

David Greig’s 2001 play explicitly blurs boundaries between fact and fiction to tell the true story of this doctor who championed the rights of children and who, refusing all chances to save himself, accompanied the orphans in his care to the death camp.

Korczak’s example is one of goodness; Rob Pickavance combines gentle tolerance with steely determination: if you behave with “justice, honesty and tolerance”, you encourage others, even Nazis, to do the same. Korczak’s stance is countered by Danny Sykes’s frenetic Adzio, a fictional street boy who believes violence will only be beaten by even greater violence. Torn between the two is Gemma Barnett’s gentle Stephanie (another fictional orphan).

The overall effect of the piece, originally commissioned for young people by this production’s director, James Brining, may be more atmospheric and educative than dramatic, but the lessons it delivers still need learning.

Watch a trailer for Dr Korczak’s Example.

At Leeds Playhouse until 15 February


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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