The Poniatowski Lyceum is a squat post-War two storey rectangular building standing in the old Jewish Ghetto area of Warsaw. It is part of a large and imposing Communist housing estate of low rise blocks and generous open spaces which replaced the desolation and rubble the German and Russian wreckers combined to bequeath the city’s long suffering survivors of the war. If maintained it would make attractive and pleasant city-centre middle-class accommodation. As it is, shabbiness and dog shit give the district a rundown, defiled atmosphere.
Yet, everything about the layout is right for civilised and easy urban living. The amenities which include interdenominational churches, shops, cinemas, the metro, sex shops which have propagated with surprising vigour, a vegan restaurant and even the jewel of a chamber opera are all within a few minutes walk of every resident. Clearly, there was vision behind its planning. Clearly, there was a determined effort to make something good of this ravaged, blood soaked, hallowed ground. Yet, like so many places in Poland, the good intentions of the planners have been carelessly squandered.
There is an inescapable feeling of anonymity, that the inhabitants live their lives on the inside, privately, discreetly and meanly. Mean because with a little effort on their part, with a little civic spirit and generosity towards their neighbours, they could transform the outward aspects into something attractive, welcoming and shared, something that would uplift resident and passerby alike.
The school itself could do with a coat of paint and some vegetation to celebrate its place in the community. But once inside, the dismal exterior impression is replaced with a sense of awe. Firstly, the school is remarkably quiet. Secondly, the central hall is huge, imposing, airy and bright. This is entirely unexpected and inspiring. There is something of the tardis about it. The central rectangular hall dominates the interior. An imposing double staircase leads to a four sided gallery. The classrooms are on the circumference of both floors. The hall is lit by rows of windows immediately under the roof. All that is missing from this extraordinary building is any sign or celebration of the pupils. No art work, no photographs! No lists of achievements. Anonymity. The emptiness creates a slightly eerie and disquieting sensation as if all is not well.
Rather than subject the children to Victorian expressions of high church faith and dogma, however profound, I decided to use my 90 minutes for a course in team building. This involved theatre skills designed to break down physical and mental barriers between actors and singers preparing to work together. Without doubt this would be new to them, challenging, even shocking, but hopefully enjoyable and fun. I was greeted warmly by the teacher from the book launch, shown to the well worn gym, which fortunately was free and ideal for my purpose and prepared to meet my charges. Roughly on time, thirty adolescents trooped in.