Ryan Craig owns up: I have to write about Jews
The acclaimed playwright has finally come to terms with being pigeon-holed. He talks to John Nathan
PLAYWRIGHT RYAN Craig thought he had moved on from the Holocaust. But that was before he read a new Polish play called Our Class which has just received its world premiere at the National Theatre.
“When the National asked me to read it, my first instinct was: ‘Oh no — not another play about the Holocaust’,” he says, on the way back from rehearsals.
Written by one of Poland’s leading playwrights Tadeusz Slobodzianek, and translated by Craig, Our
Class examines an event that happened on July 10 1941 when the Jewish population of the north-east Polish town of Jedwabne was killed by a pogrom that ended with hundreds of Jews burned alive in a blazing barn.
For decades this and a similar atrocity in the nearby town of Radzilow were thought to be yet other massacres committed by the occupying Nazis. Indeed, for years, a memorial on the site of the Jedwabne barn, on the outskirts of the town, stated that the 1600 Jews who had died there were murdered by the Germans.
But this version changed when American historian Jan T Gross turned his forensic eye on the evidence. In 2000 he published a book called Neighbours which revealed that the Jews of Jedwabne had, in fact, not been killed by the Nazis, but by the Polish, Roman Catholic half of the town. Not only that, there was little or no encouragement from the Germans.
“So I said I’d read the play,” continues Craig. “But as I picked it up, I was also thinking that I’ve already trodden this kind of ground.”
Past plays by Craig most conspicuously include the acclaimed What We Did To Weinstein, which opened in 2005 at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The work is a kind of psychological thriller which takes in issues of Jewish diaspora identity and existential angst. The flawed hero is a British-born, Hendon-raised Israeli soldier called Josh. The title refers to the punishment meted out by a Jewish gang in the 1950s when one of their number becomes involved with neo-Nazis.
Even more Holocaust-related was Craig’s next play, which opened the following year at the Hampstead Theatre. Called The Glass Room, it featured a middleaged lady who seemed very respectable but for the fact that she was also a Holocaust-denier. She is prosecuted on race-hate charges and defended by a Jewish lawyer whose belief in freedom of speech is strained to breaking point by his client’s speeches.
All artists have recurring themes, but you can see why Craig, who has also carved out a career as a television writer (he wrote Saddam’s Tribe for Channel 4, about the attempted revolt by Saddam Hussein’s son in 1995), would not want to be pigeon-holed as an author of Jewish and Holocaust stories.
“So I read the play and it’s a kind of extraordinary piece,” says the 37-year-old Londoner, “but it isn’t only about the Holocaust. It’s about a lot more than that.”
There are not many plays about which you could say its subject was “more” than the Holocaust — as if anything could be more than the Shoah. But Our Class may be one of them. Taking his cue from Gross’s book, Slobodzianek has written a mercurial drama that follows the fate of 10 Jewish and Catholic children who go to school in a town very much like Jedwabne.
It is a remarkable piece of writing. And transforming the original Polish into a play that can be understood by English audiences has been as daunting as writing a new play. It is a process that is not just about translation, but interpretation. It begins with a literal translation produced by a linguist who is rarely a dramatist. It is from this often-impenetrable document that the playwright — in this case Craig — must decipher not just the plot, but the meaning of the work.
“Often you need to talk to the author and the translator to figure out simply what is going on” says Craig, who by the end of the process felt that Our Class was as much his as any of his previous works. “I was as nervous on the press night as I was for any of my own plays,” he says.
In the play, the 10 characters — partly symbolic of a minyan — tell their stories from the perspective of children and adults; perpetrators and victims. Set in an area that suffered serial Soviet and Nazi occupations, it is a tale of Polish-Jewish relations buffeted by communism and Polish nationalism, and which ends in a brutal act of antisemitism with most of the Catholic half of the class murdering the Jewish half. But although these events are horrific, the play, which is set between 1925 and 2002, is not a simple tale of right and wrong.
There is no doubt that Slobodzianek’s sympathy is with the victims. But the objective of this half-Roman Catholic and half-Russian Orthodox, Siberian-born playwright was to write about people, not about monsters and innocents. “I started to get very excited — I didn’t feel I’d ever read a play like this,” says Craig.
For him, it was the Jewish character of Menachim that convinced him to write the English version of Our Class. Because the play draws mainly on events that happened in more than one place, Jedwabne is never named. But anyone familiar with the history will recognise many of the characters as being similar to those who lived in the town and surrounding area — both victims and perpetrators.
“In the first half of the play Menachim is a sort of unwilling, subversive victim,” explains Craig. “He’s a classic Jewish character. He runs the local cinema; he’s not an idealist, he’s a survivor. A pragmatist. He likes women and he likes life. But after the massacre a reversal happens when he returns to interrogate the people who perpetrated the atrocity. The victim becomes a kind of the perpetrator. And what I’d been trying to do with What We Did To Weinstein [which features a Palestinian militant at the mercy of Craig’s Jewish protagonist Josh], and even with The Glass Room, was to show how Jews have changed in modern times but still have the vestige of thousands of years of persecution in their bones. So for me Menachim was the way into Our Class.”
And it was while reading the play that Craig realised he did have a territory after all. “This year has been a bit of a watershed,” he says. “I was trying to get away from the subject of Jewish identity and Holocaust. I wrote plays that were destined not to see the light of day because they’re not me.”
Craig is no longer running away from his chosen subjects, or perhaps, more accurately, the subjects that choose him. Which is not to say that he will only be writing about Jews or the Holocaust — his latest play, about Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, which has been commissioned by the Hampstead Theatre, could not be more different. But neither will he run from the subjects with which he is most often associated. “You start to realise there’s a reason that your plays have a particular theme,” he says. “You
realise it’s because that is who you are.”
A scene from Our Class, a play about Polish antisemitism, “translated” by Ryan Craig ( below), a process that required him to render not just the plot, but also the meaning of the work in English idiom