Review: Dr Korczak’s Example. Leeds Playhouse

Review: Dr Korczak’s Example. Leeds Playhouse

It would be very difficult for anyone visiting Leeds Playhouse since the completion of its £15.8m transformation in the autumn of 2019, not to be impressed with any number of the outstanding features and facilities that now greet the theatre-goer as the iconic Quarry Hill site is approached.

Pass Chumbawamba’s life-affirming “I get knocked down but I get up again” in beguiling red neon and you are into an art-space that – in the heart of the north – wraps itself around you in a way that confirms the creative sector continues to be at the forefront of the best kind of social and economic change.

Dr Korczak’s Example begins its Leeds run today, in a week when we’re all being asked to never forget about the atrocities that took place across Europe under the Nazis.

After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis herded the Jews into the newly created Warsaw Ghetto. Korczak was an eminent Polish Paediatrician who also ran an Orphanage – and he and the children he cared for were ‘resettled’ in the Ghetto.

Danny Sykes (Adzio), Gemma Barnett (Stephanie) and Robert Pickavance (Dr Janusz Korczak) in Dr Korczak's Example. Photography by Zoe Martin

The first ‘moving’ moment comes on entering the intimate Bramall Rock Void – the amazing new, third space beneath the theatre. The team behind the set design must receive the primary applause of the evening – as they present a scene of utter devastation that immediately immerses you in the struggles of the Warsaw Ghetto. The production is supported The Linbury Prize for Stage Design and what’s been created is breath-taking.

Amidst the wreckage of war, we are presented with the dignified Dr Korczak, played by Rob Pickavance. As he’s joined on stage by Adzio (Danny Sykes) and Stepanie (Gemma Barnett), he presses home to those assembled: “This happened. This actually happened.” Before adopting their characters fully, all three actors speak movingly about the reality behind their adaptation and leave the audience in no doubt of the reality for the Doctor and his charges.

The story begins with Korczak encountering and then preventing the summary execution of Adzio by a guard. Adzio is little more than a child and has been brutalised by the constant fight for survival in the Ghetto. The performance intelligently portrays the juxtaposition between the values and respect that form Korczak’s bedrock – and Adzio’s belief that fighting and stealing is the only way to resist. And survive.

Throughout the performance, our focus is drawn to the collection of ‘puppets’ that resemble exactly the kind of toys you might expect to see in a 1940’s orphanage. These miniature figurines, together with the table-top they inhabit, are actually used throughout by the actors, to tell the story in a way that is incredibly emotional. In doing so, Director James Brining and his team have created a most powerful piece of theatre.

Adzio’s struggle to accept kindness and adapt to Korczak’s belief in dignity as a form of resistance, is a constant theme. Gemma Barnett as Stepanie, is able to break through his seemingly impenetrable layers of defence and a heart-warming bond develops that gives hope.

As the Nazis cleared the Warsaw Ghetto and deportations to Extermination Camps accelerated, Dr Korczak tried valiantly to secure protection for his orphans, but inevitably – it was not to be.

Although it is known that Korczak was provided with numerous opportunities to save himself, he accompanied the singing, flag-bearing children in his care on to the train to Treblinka and extermination. Rob Pickavance brilliantly portrays the moments leading up to departure, as he carefully assembles a column of his puppet orphans on a superbly-lit table-top. The moment is harrowing.

Puppets in Dr Korczak's Example. Photography by Zoe Martin

This extremely important piece of theatre and its crucial messages around the rights of children runs at Leeds Playhouse from 29 January to 15 February. Some performances are BSL interpreted and on 11 February, there is a post-show discussion with holocaust survivor Arek Hersch MBE.

It seems quite wrong to rate this production – but undoubtedly 5 Stars.

Colin Petch

Northern Soul – January 2020