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“Only music could teach you the truth and not betray the story of Haïm Lipsky,” says the narrator (Mélanie Doutey) at the beginning of Gérald Garutti’s sensitive and restrained take on the life of the virtuoso violinist and Holocaust survivor. We all know and often struggle to conceptualise the fact that six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis – “the silence of six million” as Garutti terms it in the play, and as the atrocity stretches further back into the past it is often hard to shock us into fresh realisations of the enormity of the suffering of people like Lipsky.
Music is one way of communicating the unspeakable, a way of giving a fresh impression of history. The recurrence of extracts from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in the production, with the extra-lingual sadness and beauty of its opening bars, perhaps communicated more to us than an attempt to naturalistically replicate Auschwitz onstage. When Haïm instinctively played the work of the Jewish composer at his audition for the Auschwitz orchestra in one of the play’s most powerful and well-written moments, the music is both given a new depth of expression in the pathos of its brutal context, but it also transcends Auschwitz, its beauty and yearning hinting at something beyond the meaningless suffering of the concentration camp.
But music at Auschwitz carries much more ambiguous connotations than a pure reminder of the beauty of art in the face of incredible suffering. Primo Levi remembered the “infernal” music the camp orchestra played to coordinate the marching of labourers, whilst Auschwitz trumpeter Herman Sachnowitz described how he was forced to provide musical accompaniment for executions in a “grotesque spectacle” that robbed the victims of dignity in death. Even though the narrative arc of In the Light of a Violin shows how music enabled Haïm to survive, Lipsky leaves Poland unable to play the violin after the trauma he has been through, only returning to it again in his old age.
The play, while foregrounding the bravery and determination of Lipsky, offers a fraught exploration of the relationship between atrocity and art, by turns challenging and endorsing Adorno’s famous statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Following the invasion of Poland, the infectious klezmer melodies that vividly invoked the Jewish community about to be destroyed were replaced by dissonant and simplistic piano when Poland was invaded, as if beauty had been momentarily crushed under the weight of events. The virtuosic grandstanding of violinist Yaïr Benaïm in his breath-taking performance of Mendelssohn is in stark contract with the trembling and vulnerable vibrato of Samuel Maquin’s clarinet during the later Auschwitz sections. The conflict between music and despair is only narrowly won in the touching scenes between Haïm and his new wife that close the play.
The music gave the audience an impression of Auschwitz rather than an attempt to recreate it, a different and perhaps more tasteful way of presenting the Holocaust on stage. The use of Doutey’s third person narrator recognises the play’s limits: it can never recreate Lipsky’s personal nightmare, the best it can do is recount the story second-hand. The fact that Benaïm, who represents Lipsky onstage, only spoke a few lines and mostly conveyed emotion through music and muted facial expression reminds us that we can never understand what it must have been like to be him, especially as Haïm rarely spoke about his experiences in Auschwitz after his escape in an attempt to put the past behind him.
The production’s realisation that stillness and music can give as vivid an impression of the Holocaust as a more mimetic approach was one of its greatest strengths. Any audience will at some stage in their lives have been overwhelmed by the details of the monstrosities committed in the concentration camps, so to hint at history is enough to make the music and tableaux pregnant with suggested emotion. Doutey acted with her eyes, which sparkled with wonder as we were swept away by Haïm’s musical epiphanies and communicated an understated pain after the invasion of Poland. The emotion with which Benaïm first prepared to play his violin at the play’s opening perfectly communicated the mixture of associations music had acquired for Lipsky: the traumatic memories of Auschwitz, but also the hope and beauty that allowed him to survive.
Part of the success of Haïm is that its hybrid form of concert and drama meant that it expertly played by its own rules. The mixture of music and monologue worked together brilliantly, and the bare stage and faded grandeur of The Print Room hauntingly conveyed the impression of an abandoned concert hall. The decision to keep the play in the original French reinforced its examination of means of communication: the fact that much of the audience were unfamiliar with French emphasised the narration’s status as a language akin to music and silence. It perhaps detracted from the minute stillness of the action, however, that the audience’s eyes were constantly flicking between the surtitles and the actors rather than resting on the stage.
Certain aspects of the production which seemed to detract from the experience at the time were in hindsight essential for Garutti’s artistic vision. The action skips quickly from Lipsky’s recruitment into the camp orchestra to the breakdown of the Nazi regime, but this ensured the overall message was one of hope. There were also some moments which may have benefited from being lingered over, such as the heart-breaking moment when Haïm hears the Mendelsohn concerto again on the eve of his wedding, but perhaps placing further emphasis on this scene would have made the production overly sentimental.
Instead, Haïm was subtle and refreshing, restoring the proper emotional impact to a subject matter which seems to have lost some of its capacity to shock, but it also left the audience with more than nihilism, with the story of Haïm’s post-Auschwitz recovery drawing the most tears from the audience. The rousing standing ovation was well-earned by a take on the Holocaust that was both experimental and respectful.
Haim continues at the Print Room until June 21.