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by Jill Truman
Thursday, September 20, 2012
One-man play about the life of Polish writer and paediatrician Janusz Korczak
»Alone on the stage for the best part of two hours, Jonathan Salt outlines the life and philosophy of the Polish writer and paediatrician, Janusz Korczak.
The action spans the final days of his life and of the lives of the 200 orphans in his care. “You know that all this has happened”, he says – very true: but how much have we human beings learned from this knowledge?
As well as giving a thoughtful performance, Jonathan Salt has also researched and written the script. Perhaps, in consequence, he has become so close to his subject that he has ceased to see the wood for the trees, resulting in a production that is often more of a lecture – if an interesting and moving one – than a drama.
By sacrificing some of the wealth of information at his disposal, he could have left himself space for a deeper exploration of the character of this extraordinary man and a more convincing portrayal of his relationships with children.
Janusz Korczak, an early campaigner for the rights of the child, was already famous when the orphanage he ran was moved into the Warsaw ghetto. He was therefore offered opportunities to escape, which he refused, preferring to share the fate of the children.
Jonathan Salt represents him as an intellectual and innovative man who is at the same time almost childlike in character. As the play ends, he leads the children, dressed neatly in their best clothes and each carrying a favourite book or toy, to the transport which is to take them to Treblinka extermination camp.
The direction (Sam Conway) is straightforward and workmanlike. The set, in sympathy with Korczak’s views on rehabilitation, was constructed by inmates of HMP Littlehay and is suitably bleak and shabby, though perhaps lacking the inevitable squalor. This is a play, staged in one of the most pleasant and innovative of the newer pub theatres, which is worth an evening of anyone’s time and thought.
* Confessions of a Butterfly is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street, NW5 1AP, until September 29. Box office: 08444 77 1000.