Review: Our Class

December 23, 2009

Our Class at the National Theatre

The persecution of the Jews over the course of the 20th century is no easy task to condense into a play. Nor is it an easy task to bear witness to over the course of three hours in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s new play in a version by Ryan Craig whilst holding heavy subject matter it is hard hitting, thought provoking and finely acted.

I had my doubts about Our Class within the first few minutes. My initial reaction was, ‘not another play where adults pretend to be children’. There is nothing worse, often sending shivers down my spine, to see grown actors attempting a mocking childs voice and mannerisms. However there is something quite compelling with the start of the play, it sets the tone and links directly with the title and theme of the play: a close knit school class and their inevitable future living through multiple regimes.

Our Class is a tough play to watch, its dialogue is brutal, hitting the points of torture and endurment of a ethnic group being persecuted for their origins. There is nothing happy about genocide and Tadeusz Slobodzianek doesn’t try to convey the light hearted approach, there is no humour, just the knowledge that this did happen, (and in some countries, still happening).

What I admire about this production is my inability to highlight a single actor who stood out to be praised. Our Class isn’t about exceptional acting abilities – it is performed with the ensemble at heart, and what a better way to feed into the key themes. They sing folk songs, recite nursery rhymes in unison and dance in circles on the wooden floor of the Cottesloe Theatre.

The ensemble at work

Spanning some 60 years, Our Class tackles a fascinating subject, that any person with an interest in Polish history would thrive off. At times the play is a little heavy with its emphasis of dates and times to which the story is winding between. Yet it is the narrative based text that drives the piece, action is minimal here. It’s almost a Greek tragedy for the modern tragedies of our time. We hear of the violence, the horrific torture of the Jews against the catholic villagers. If there is action, – fighting between characters, Bijan Sheibani’s direction creates the brutality with words not physical contact. The words and dialogue are the weapons of this play.

Our Class whilst being simple in its stage design by Bunny Christie, it is a complex piece. The development of the characters over the span of their lives gain increased intensity as guilt emerges, claims are made against them and ultimately their deaths lay before them. Our Class resonates through us so truthfully because, although we may not have first hand experience of War Crimes and Genocide, we all know of them. It’s something that hangs heavy over Europe from the second world war, and further afield today.

The stage design for Our Class, simple.

One thing I struggled with slightly was the length of the play. At 3 hours with one interval, the second half seemed to drag slightly. Whilst I understand that for us to understand the paths of the characters, and where they end up you need this length, I couldn’t help to think that some 20 minutes of editing could have brought the running time down. The brutality of the spoken action is less so in the second half, and instead the various monologues of action take over. The actors sliding between themselves to fulfill the narration.

The narration of Our Class is without doubt energised and emotional. Careful pacing has been executed with the actors, giving at times remarkable outcomes, twisting and turning through the individual stories. Yet what Our Class needs is a change in direction or tactic. The monologues are delivered with force, but after 2 hours, you want something different, a change of dynamic. Having said this, it doesn’t make for a poor performance.

It is remarkable how gripping this production is. Perhaps it’s the subject matter, or perhaps the acting and directing? Whatever it is, Our Class is gripping, bursting with emotion, with a deep sense of understanding and knowledge that humans are vile, horrid creatures at times.

Our Class is playing at the National Theatre in the Cottesloe Theatre until 12th January 2010, tickets are still available through their website and box office.

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Thoughts of a Drama School Boy No More

July 9, 2009

I have just come to an end of my drama school life. 3 years passed me by within a blink of an eye. So, it got me thinking about what I’ve learnt over this period of time, the sort of words of wisdom that I now hold. Of course I am a lot more maturer now than I ever was when I first started at the ripe age of 18, where I was eager to absorb everything I could as an actor. Interesting enough, I wouldn’t call myself an actor now by a long shot… I am somewhere between a performer [a vast difference than actor], a maker, a director, a writer, a… theatre maker or artist.

I’m pretty sure that some people are frowning at the term “theatre maker“, I remember a friend saying how ‘stuck up’ that sounds and how it’s far better to be called a theatre artist. No matter what labels you apply to yourself it is what you feel or want that matters. So all the same, my distinctions as to what I am in the theatre world is somewhat blurred, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Whilst I was at Drama School, it should be noted that I wasn’t on an acting course as such. I was ‘training’ in European Theatre Arts. The difference being that whilst we did train in acting methods and ideals, they were all born from European thinkers, practitioners and playwrights. Automatically the mindset of myself in terms of thinking as an actor/performer is slightly different from that of the ‘straight’ acting courses deep in method acting, I have a more European mindset.

My course took a more physical and contemporary look at theatre. We often engaged in lessons where we  would run around the room for an hour or so, before following another hour of rolling on the floor, without even speaking a line of text. What good does this do I hear you ask? It’s about training your body, to understand your body and to feel your body.

Again, it all sounds rather ‘airy fairy’ but for a actor/performer to have an understanding of their body is essential. To know where your body is in relation to everyone else in the class easily translates to when you are performing and being acutely aware of the distances between each of your fellow actors without needing to look.

You begin to learn an awareness and the essence of the ensemble.

Performers, Critics, and general theatre-going people are very quick to throw this idea of ‘the ensemble’ around. I can’t help but to think that there is a distinct lack of understanding as to what an ensemble actually is and does. For me, an ensemble are a group of performers who work together, extensively together in order to produce a form of theatre. They are a unit, a single body, and a team. Ensemble can be seen in the way that a Greek Chorus work with each other to build the dramatic action within a performance. From my learning, one of the easiest ways of creating theatre is as a collective, as this ensemble.

You learn to trust the ensemble, you gain support from the ensemble and you work together to form the ensemble.

This quickly can lead onto another fundamental idea that I learnt. Whilst there is an ensemble collectively working together to produce work, the role of the director as God, is dead. This might seem dramatic, but I have been trained that the time of when the director who rules over everyone, making all decisions and choices for a performance – this can no longer take place.

We are in the golden age of collaboration. We as performers are directors, or we are working with directors. What I am trying to get across is that the notion that the director and performer working together, collaboratively is what theatre is moving towards. By joining minds, you join together different perspectives of the creative work, and thus giving a broader outlook upon a piece of theatre. Collaboration also is found with designers too, where every element is brought together as a whole. Instead of one ruling person overseeing a production.

Some people might take delight in the fact that whilst I seem to be very critically minded through the articles I post on ‘A Younger Theatre’, my experiences come directly from being a performer myself. My course has built a variety of skills within me to work with companies in creating something which I completely throw my life into.

If I have learnt anything, it is a deep, deep, passion for an art form that I am willing to dedicate my life to. So maybe watch this space…?