Blog: James Brining

The artistic director of Leeds Playhouse talks about his long relationship with the play Dr Korczak’s Example

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My relationship with Dr Korczak’s Example started when I was working in Scotland back in the 1990s. Russian theatre director Irina Brown, who was based at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, told me in passing about this man, Janusz Korczak, who was a writer, doctor, storyteller and broadcaster. He had written a book called King Matt, a great novel exploring a child’s experience of being king: how it was much more complicated and compromising than they could ever have imagined. She also told me about Korczak himself, a Polish Jew who ran an orphanage for Jewish and Christian children in Warsaw with an incredibly liberal and progressive approach. When the Nazis invaded, he and his charges were put into the ghetto, where he continued to treat the children with respect and dignity. Eventually, he and all the children were taken to Treblinka and killed. I was struck by both the story and the man.

At that time, Scotland had just voted for a Scottish Parliament. I was running a children’s theatre company called TAG and we decided to do a four-year project, Making the Nation, aimed at young people, looking at a whole range of issues around democracy and governance, interrogating nationhood and citizenship. As part of it, I commissioned two plays: a version of the book King Matt and a new piece about Korczak himself by playwright David Greig.

The resulting play, Dr Korczak’s Example, was originally aimed at a schools audience. It started off in Glasgow but ending up touring the whole of Scotland in its first iteration. It was performed in a very simple way in school halls with a simple aesthetic, including dolls representing characters in the story.

 One of the things the play explores is what you tell children and young people about the atrocities and horrors of life

The first performance was on 11 September 2001, the day of the Twin Towers attack. Opening the show in a school in the East End of Glasgow and then driving back to our company’s base to hear the news gave even more resonance to the whole story. One of the things the play explores is what you tell children and young people about the atrocities and horrors of life. Do you try to protect them, give them a version of the truth or the full facts? The play highlights the irreconcilable tension between our idealised view of how the world should be versus the pragmatism of how we respond to the world in its imperfect state. Do we try to change the world or do we just respond to it?

I did the original version in 2001. We revived it, then revived it again as part of London International Festival of Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre. After I joined Dundee Rep, we were invited to make the show again and take it to Japan in 2006. It played in Tokyo and Osaka, and also Hiroshima, which the company said was extraordinary but which I missed because my wife was just about to give birth. We were then invited to do it again by Fife Council as part of an education programme about the Holocaust. That was all one production – it just took place five times.

I’ve done quite a few things more than once, but I never intended to go back to this piece again. I was really happy with the original production. Then a year or so ago I came across a statistic that showed quite a high number of people – maybe 18 to 20 per cent – thought the Nazi Holocaust was exaggerated, with a slightly smaller number saying it was completely fabricated. I was really struck and shocked by that because when I grew up it was a very present thing.

I was then invited to read Dr Korczak’s Example with our youth theatre group. I hadn’t thought about it meaningfully for at least 10 years but, when I read it, it had a powerful effect on me. The young people were also really struck by it. Ultimately, the play is an incredibly powerful and important story about the Jewish Holocaust, which sounds very grim, but it also has hope within it. Korczak’s beliefs became the basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and his example continues to resonate.

On a very personal level, revisiting the play has made me ask if I’m the same person I was 20 years ago. Having children has changed the way I see the play and, perhaps, explains why I was so moved when I read it with the young people. I’m not saying that having children gives you more of a profound understanding, but it does give you a different perspective. And I’m just older, so I can now align myself quite strongly with Korczak.

I think that’s the measure of a really great piece of theatre – it speaks to you differently according to who you are and where you are. Having children, being older, the world being a slightly different place, even having more distance from 1942, when the play is set – all of these things affect the way you engage with it. But as I watched rehearsals yesterday, I was really moved. The power of the play is still very potent.

Dr Korczak’s Example, Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse, 25 Jan-15 Feb.
Box office: 0113 213 7700; leedsplayhouse.org.uk

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