Review: Dr Korczak’s Example At Leeds Playhouse

Wednesday 29th January 2020 at Leeds Playhouse.


In seeing Leeds Playhouse’s latest offering, Doctor Janusz Korczak and his brilliant work are no longer in the realm of the unknown to me and for that I am so grateful. We now know that the plague of Nazi rule and the creation of places like The Warsaw Ghetto did bring many otherwise ‘ordinary’ individuals to hero status but with the passing of time, their stories are not so prominent or widely known as they should be and I’m so glad plays like this one can be found on our stages.

In David Greig’s 2001 play Dr Korczak’s Example we first meet our earnest actors who emphatically declare the story to have happened. They establish the honesty of the piece with a nod to both the craft of playing those who once existed and the incredibly significant period of history we are about to be thrust into (Rose Rivett’s set is fantastic in its instantaneous ability to transport us to such a specific time and place).

We meet the Polish educator and talented writer Korczak himself as he pleads for a second chance for a boy completely unknown to him. From there we follow the many challenges faced and overcome by this remarkable man and his orphanage containing 200 children within the ghetto walls, that is until the insurmountable odds under Nazi rule must be faced.

Above all else, Korczak believes in children and their unspoken but inalienable rights and writes about his beliefs with great insight and passion. The child is to be respected and protected but not stripped of autonomy. They are deserving of dignity and love and understanding, of education and democracy. So what happens when children and adults alike are forced to submit to a regime like the hideous creation of the Nazis? Korczak clings to a higher moral philosophy though he recognises his perilous circumstances and the futility of his limitless can-do attitude even while optimistically ploughing onwards. Yet while his passionate beliefs reside within a gentle and dignified exterior, korczak’s growing indignation and explosive dismay are inevitabilities.

Mark Pickavance gives a brilliant performance in the lead role, ensuring that Korczak’s goodness is never a weakness and always a virtue; he’s wonderful in capturing the caring uncle role but excels when giving us an insight into Korczak’s darker moments. He is all comfort and reassurance to the children he champions until he is left alone, at which point he quietly accosts the unseen Nazi Soldier casting a long shadow over the ghetto, almost as if the nameless, faceless man so deaf and dumb to the humanity he scorns is a merciless god in need of reprimand. And it’s in those forceful moments that the weight of James Brining’s direction and Pickavance’s performance is really felt.

As a three-hander this is an impressive piece. Pickavance is joined by Gemma Barnett and Danny Sykes as Stephanie and Adzio. As representatives of two ‘kinds’ of orphan in the ghetto they’re an excellent pairing. Barnet’s Stephanie is the trusting innocent all careful approach and gentle coaxing where Sykes’ Adzio is the wounded self-sufficient independent, prickly and distant until the two make an all-important connection. The trio multi-role to provide various residual characters too but it’s in a collection of puppets and dolls that the orphanage and marginal characters are able to take centre stage in ways which are creative but also ultimately provide a brilliantly impactful final visual (given full force by Jane Lalljee’s lighting).

The piece is so delicately done that it must certainly do justice to the inspirational dignity of Doctor Korczak. Few productions are able to quell audiences to reflective silence but this audience were completely silent without exception while filing out of the space towards the rowdy modern world beyond – a reaction which is a testament to both Greig’s writing and the lasting power of Korczak’s story of sacrifice and unshakeable resolve.

Dr Korczak’s Example is a Leeds Playhouse production. It plays the Brammal Rock Void until February 15th 2020 and you can find tickets here.

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