The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London
Written by Jonathan Salt
Directed by Sam Conway
In a modest flurry of London plays about Dr Janusz Korczak, Confessions of a Butterfly arrives as a one act, one man tribute to this Polish-Jewish hero of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Korczak was a renowned paediatric doctor, ahead of his time, who devoted his career to studying and caring for children and to documenting The Rights of The Child, a doctrine later to be enshrined by the United Nations. In Warsaw between the wars, he established a Jewish orphanage where much of his research and observations were undertaken. When the Nazis occupied Poland and amongst their plans for the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews, they established the ghetto in Warsaw into which the orphanage was transferred. Throughout this period of deprivation, degradation and horrific suffering, Korczak heroically remained with his charges until he and they were transported to the Treblinka concentration camp and murdered.
The play is set in Korczak’s bedroom/study in the orphanage, the night before transportation. Amidst modest sips of vodka and aware of the fate that awaits him and the children in the morning, he describes his work and philosophy through flashback and direct explanation to the audience. Jonathan Salt, who plays Korczak, has researched his subject thoroughly. Salt is very learned and committed to teaching others of man’s inhumanity against man.
Against such a devoted background of study, scriptwriting and performance it seems churlish to criticise, however the play fails to reach the heights, nor plough the harrowing depths, to which its creators aspire. Like his subject, Salt’s performance is stoic, but stoicism by its nature barely scratches the surface of a person’s emotional core. We do see the Doctor moved when he has to care for a baby dying of typhus, but through much of the play, the man is more narrator than impassioned and above all troubled, protector. We rarely get a chance to see the brave face that of course he would have put on for the children, drop and we need to. For this work to have dramatic impact, Salt needs to be less understated in portraying the Doctor and instead explore the emotional anguish that his hero would be suffering, so cognisant of the destruction of his community and his children. Towards the end of the play Korczak suffers a nightmare as he fitfully sleeps during that awful final slumber. This may be Salt’s nod towards Korczak’s inner turmoil, but it is a confused moment in the play, and as a recognition of the man’s emotional upheaval, it is too late on in this well intentioned, but nonetheless flawed, tribute.
Runs until 29 September 2012