A shocking moment in Polish history is the focus of playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s epic yet simply staged play.
The play may pivot around that one event, yet the story covers decades of history as we follow the lives of a group of schoolchildren whose experience of that devastating moment is hugely different.
In 1941 in the small Polish town of Jedwabne some 1,600 Jews – men, women, children, babies –were barricaded into a barn which was then set alight, killing everyone in it. The massacre was blamed on the Nazis, but years later it was revealed that Poles played a definite hand in murdering their countrymen and women.
Beginning before the Second World War, Slobodzianek’s play introduces us to 10 schoolchildren, both Jews and Catholics, who share a classroom in Jedwabne. We follow them from these early, mostly harmonious years – when they enjoy schoolyard crushes, dance and play together – as they grow into adults and become affected by the politics, prejudices and resentments that adults harbour, fuelled by the events of war and invasion. Soviet and then German occupation leads them to form allegiances and divisions, and some make appalling choices that affect their former classmates.
Bijan Sheibani’s production has rearranged the Cottesloe stage so that we view the action from four sides of a rectangle from which the 10 actors, present on stage throughout, relate the tale with only 10 chairs as props that take on a gruesome significance later on.
The immensity of the story means that much of the action is narrated, rather than acted out. The actors do not change physically throughout, from aged 10 to age 80, and they are given no change of clothes or props to help them make this transition, meaning the audience must use its imagination to fill out the scenes that are being described on stage. But at times perhaps imagination creates a visceral quality that could not have been achieved by a more visual staging. Only a waft of smoke and the sound of crackling flames are needed to evoke the horror that young Jewish mother Dora finds herself faced with, as she and her baby are imprisoned in the burning barn by her former classmates. It leaves a sickening, yet hugely effective, mental picture at the end of Act One.
The second half deals with the consequences of the Jedwabne massacre on the classmates who were affected by it; both perpetrators and victims. As they grow up – or not – with the fallout, they remain linked to each other by the classroom they once shared. The rhymes and songs that are interspersed between scenes show us that whatever route life was to take these people on, they are connected by a shared past, innocent and carefree, which was yet to be shattered by what was to come.