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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - ‘Our Class’ is at the Na­tional The­atre, Lon­don SE1. Tel: 020 7452 3000

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

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