Friday, December 4, 2009

Our Class - a play at the National, or, why it sucks for Poland to be stuck between Russia and Germany

Greetings play fans, this week I saw the Polish play Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek (a version by Ryan Craig) Tadeusz wrote a great play and if you are in London you should definitely see it. I think there are even a few of the £10 tickets available, which is hands down the best bargain in the Big Smoke.

This is Poland, 1925. We follow a class of eleven year old children, some Jews, some Catholics, all richly human, ten of them, from 1925 until their deaths. It is pretty moving. The set is very simple, ten chairs in the round, except for two simple and powerful images, some sand and a frame.

The sand: At the end of the first half, 1600 Jews are burned alive inside a barn in the Polish village where the play takes place, not by Soviets or Nazis but by the Poles. One of the classmates is directing the genocide and one is in the barn. It is excruciating but not too much, not a snuff film. We come back from intermission and where the barn stood on the stage, there is a covering of sand. The ashes, perhaps, or the mass grave underneath the barn where Jews were buried, a scar on the land. The effect is really marvelous, i.e., I marveled at the theatricality. Because as the survivors and the perpetrators act out the rest of their lives, they move differently when they walk on the sand. The sand bears their weight differently than the rest of the floor. It showed the characters forever changed by that event in their muscles and in gravity. It was also the ever-existent knowledge of mortality, of sin and regret. It was rich because it was so many things. Bravo on the sand. I must again begrudgingly admit the English excellence with set design.

The frame: Suspended above the stage was, well, I'll call it a frame, a square of wood the same size of the stage. In the first half, it was suspended high over the action. While the barn was burning, the frame slowly lowered while sounds of burning wood filled the theatre. Killer. But then, the frame stayed down through the whole second half of the play. Like the hopes of the classmates, like their expectations, lowered, heavier. Like the press of mortality. The weight of the compromises we make when we get older in order to live our lives. Wonderful.

I liked the fact that the play was big and broad in scope, it really told the life story of ten people. Necessarily, there was a lot of telling rather than showing but there were enough judicious injections of theatricality to make it work and by the end I realized that this play had made me truly care about the lives of these people and eager to hear their stories, even the sucky part of the story of getting old and dying.

I need, however, to have a word with you about the translator. Ryan, Ryan, Ryan. Why must you be so English? Why must the English try to imperialize every use of the language with their cozy little tea-soaked idioms? Here is my problem: the play was written in Polish about people in a Polish village but the translation was littered with English idioms ("Christmas Fete", "scarpered", "on holiday" ) things that only English people would say. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It really jolted me out of the moment, it was jarring to hear that someone was offering "drinks and nibbles". The idioms evoked Englishness - emotional constipation, hot drinks, Buckingham Palace.

And even worse the entire British class system was injected into the play. The more refined characters spoke in the Home Counties accent, the brutes and rapist all sounded Northern England working class. This undermined the whole damned play which was trying to communicate the uniqueness of Poland, not make Poland into England.

And another thing. This play is not Copenhagen. These people were not discussing metaphysical aspects of reality and particle physics. They were getting married, running away, getting raped, hiding from the Nazis, hiding from the Soviets. My point is the lines were very easy to understand without Ryan having to translate everything into this very English idiom. He should have been more faithful to the sentence structure as it would have been in Polish. Maybe he even should have used the Polish idioms.

Whenever the English papers quote American celebrities, and I am talking about actual quotation marks representing that this is what was said, they do the same damned thing. It pisses me off. Tobey Maguire did not tell the newspaper that he had to get something "out of the boot" of his car. Julia Roberts did not tell the reporter she was going to go "on holiday". Quit it. He said "trunk" and she said "vacation" and people would have understood if you had quoted accurately. English is bigger than England, there are vast stores of idioms waiting to enrich language and understanding, and Ryan let the play down by choosing to ignore that fact. Despite this disservice, it was still a powerful play.