“It’s been a long time since I have seen such a clear-cut drama and psychological tension”, says Yana Ross, the director of the play at Lithuania’s National Dramatic Theatre
The theatre’s performance note states its prediction of future discussion that will certainly follow the premiere of Słobodzianek’s text. There will be opinions, the theatre foresees, that this play takes place in Poland and that Lithuanians have nothing to do with its story. The statement further reads:
Here, there are attempts at resigning from the Holocaust, of pushing its memories out into the sphere of the unconscious. The thresholds to sites of mass murder, of which there were more than 200 in Lithuania, are overgrown with grass and none of them figure in the Universal Lithuanian Encyclopaedia. It’s got nothing to do with us, it’s not us. And yet it is the most tragic chapter in Lithuanian history and a burning problem of moral responsibility for the whole of today’s society.
The Lithuanian premiere of Tadeusz Słobodzianek's world-famous play, Our Class, is scheduled for the 20th of September. The piece is translated from the Polish by Rolandas Rastauskas.
In 1941, as many as 1,600 Polish Jews were burned alive in the Polish town of Jedwabne. The accepted version of history blames German occupying troops, but two Polish studies have shown that the perpetrators of the slaughter were in fact the victims’ classmates and neighbours.
Słobodzianek's play is one of the first works invoking the Jedwabne atrocity. The writer gathered most of the details from books by historians and journalists including Jan T. Gross and Anna Bikont, but this real-life material underwent a far-reaching process of transformation.
In 14 scenes, or lessons, Słobodzianek's drama follows a group of Poles and Jews who were classmates before the war, in a small town rather like Jedwabne - telling their story from those days until our times. The story of 10 students begins in 1925. They are friends who live, play and sing together and whose carefree play is abruptly interrupted.
The war breaks out, first with Soviet and then with German forces taking over the little town. Antisemitism breaks out in a series of rapes, murders and torture, finding its culmination in a mass pogrom. Nearly all Jewish dwellers are burned alive in a barn or murdered in the town square. Very few miraculously managed to survive. With the end of the war, there is no ending to the violence, as the impossible task of settling the score with history begins.
Our Class tells the story of collective guilt, and a truth that nobody seems to have a need of understanding. It tells a story that cannot be judged, cannot be reversed, and cannot even be explained.
Słobodzianek received the prestigious Nike Literary Award for his play in 2010. The premiere production was directed by Ondrej Spišák at the Na Woli Theatre in Warsaw.
Yana Ross tells the journal Lietuvos žinios in an interview available in the original Lithuanian on lzinios.lt:
This play is a test of strength for the Lithuanian audiences - can one look into the past? Can one perceive and accept resposibility for a historic past with dignity? Is it possible to understand and experience what our grandparents undoubtedly lived through and what they took to their graves with them? This story of life-long friends, of acquaintances from the school classroom to the grave is disturbing.
Usually I don’t determine who the performance is addressed to, but in this case, especially for the Lithuanians, it's for those who are alive longer that we are. In working with the actors, it’s especially important - speaking not in an abstract way about Poland, but in a concrete one, about Lithuania. There is no need for some special metaphors here, of which there are plenty in Lithuanian theatre. Here, what is required is honesty and in no way are we inclined to look for heroes and antagonists. It’s the human being that must be perceived, not the metaphor.
What seems to be exceptional in this play?
Our Class is a contemporary drama, written by a man of the theatre who lives in the same time as we do, and speaks to us in a direct way, without pulling some card tricks. It’s been a long time since I have seen such a bold voice, such clear-cut drama and psychological tension.
Born in 1973 in Moscow, Yana Ross has studied at the GITIS school in Moscow as well as the Yale School of Drama. Ross has staged peformances across the world, including a production of Macbeth at the Volksbühne am-Rosa-Luxemburg Platz in Berlin, and L. Arias’ A Kingdom in the Snow at New York City's PS 122. She has collaborated with Elfride Jelinek on the stagings of her Bambiland (Oskaras Koršunovas Teatras), Sleeping Beauty (SPAF w Korei Południowej) and Rehnitz (Hungarian National Theatre). She is a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship.
Since the world premiere of Our Class at London's National Theatre in 2009, audiences and critics alike are touched by the stories told in this extraordinary play, which stretched across 80 years of Poland's most recent history. They play was staged with success in Canada, the United States, Spain, Japan, Hungary, Russia and in Brazil. In September, 2012 it was honoured in Hungary with the Theatre Critics' Award in the Best Performance category (in the directrion of Gábor Máté). In February 2013 it received the Great National Theatre Award of the Yomiuri Newspaper in Tokyo. Our Class was also staged as part of the 19th edition of the Golden Mask Festival in Moscow on the 8th of March, 2013. Its most recent success is the Brazilian staging at the Núcleo Experimental in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where it was staged by Zé Henrique de Paula.
Jakub Halcewicz-Pleskaczewski, translated by Paulina Schlosser, source: own material, e-teatr.pl, lzinios.lt, 23.07.2013