From the moment the lights go down it is clear we are about to see something very special. A small bespectacled man steps unremarkably and tentatively forward, then transforms into a passionate, extraordinary virtuosic violinist before our eyes playing an ardent soliloquy. Sitting in this amazing building where past glory has long since faded but still fights to be seen (the Coronet is a beautiful Victorian playhouse built in 1898) with paint peeling from every wall and ghosts of grandeur past clamouring attention, all attention is fixed as an aching, yearning melody rings out from the strings.
A female pianist joins, playing the huge grand piano at the centre back of the stage. Warm and sonorous, with a fervent urgency, she echoes the violinist, accompanying with warmth and sensitivity.
Then the music fades away and there is silence…. Only silence.
‘That kernel of silence from which silence springs…’ And so the unimaginable story of a remarkable boy, Haïm Lipsky begins. Authoritively and beguiling narrated by French actress Mélanie Doutey, She sweeps around the stage in a huge white floor length coat, her expressive voice filling the space, amplified around the auditorium (necessary to lift it above the music). Speaking in French throughout, the beautiful narrative written by Gérald Garutti and translated into English by Christopher Hampton unfolds, projected on to a central screen directly above the concert grand, and the evocative scene is set.
Haïm was a poor Polish Jewish boy who grew up in ‘Yiddishland’ – the vast area of Eastern Europe in which some 11 million Jews lived before the Second World War. The Yiddish language crossed borders and linked Jewish communities in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. A land of joy and energy and Music! And the music in this production is the 6th cast member – powerful and moving and given tremendous voice by 4 exceptional musicians: Concert Violinist Yaïr Benaim, Concert Pianist Dana Ciocarlie, and the renowned klezmer duo “The Mentshs” Accordionist Alexis Kune and Clarinettist Samuel Maquin. They transport us to ‘Yiddishland’ and also to the incomprehensible sorrow and desolation of Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz and all four are simply tremendous.
Haïm begins his musical journey on a mandolin, before progressing to a broken violin that the local shoemaker repairs and who then takes on the task of teaching young Haim how to actually play the instrument. He practices and practices and listens to soak up his Yiddish heritage, playing music by ear. He subsequently learns to read music because amazingly, his upstairs neighbour just happens to be Rubinstein. And then the war starts and everything is changed forever.
Just before the war comes we are treated to an incredible treasure as Yair Benaim plays a stupendous first movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto (a German Jewish composer who the Nazi’s would not allow to be played). This is one of the few moments in the performance where the audience is able to applaud and they certainly do.
Haïm’s journey from 1939 through the horrors of Łódź and the even worse abominations of Auschwitz, is testament to the power of music to give hope, to transcend the moment and transport both musician and listener elsewhere, if only for a brief time. It saved his life because it saved his spirit in Łódź where his dreadful job was to bury corpses, and in Auschwitz it physically saved him because he played in the camp orchestra. That the Nazi’s spared musicians to play for them is shocking and incomprehensible. But so it was. Those that played had to deal with the joy of living afterwards combined with the guilt of survival when so many others could not. But music saved the soul and spirit from being crushed.
At the end of the war, Haïm emigrated to Israel where he still lives now at the age of 94. He gave up playing music once there, but his children and grand-children are now all internationally renowned musicians. The circle of life. He has never ever spoken of his time in Auschwitz.
Since its debut in 2012, Haïm – In the Light of a Violin (Haïm, à la lumière d’un violon) has been a public and a critical triumph, enjoying sell-out performances both in Paris and on tour in France and Switzerland. After five years of performances in France and Switzerland, London has been waiting for an English translation. The English surtitles projected on the central screen work well though inevitably there is the odd time when looking at the screen means the occasional look or gesture is missed, but this is a minor quibble. It is a theatrical musical production rather than a play with music. The musicians are not actors but they do move and are incredibly focused, constantly watching and reacting to each other. It is a tremendously powerful and moving performance.
Gerald Garutti said, “When Haïm left Auschwitz, Haïm rejected Polish in order to speak two languages – Yiddish and Silence. Now at the age of 90, he speaks Hebrew. But all through his life, the language of his heart has been music.”
An absolute ‘Must See’. Extraordinary musicians. Powerful and profoundly moving true story, dramatized beautifully. If you can get to Notting Hill Gate in the next 10 days you will experience a very special performance that your heart and soul will treasure.
Review by Catherine Françoise
Print Room at the Coronet presents:
Haim – In The Light Of A Violin is playing Print Room at The Coronet until 21 June
Written and directed by Gerald Garutti, translated by Christopher Hampton
Read our interview with Mélanie Doutey – Haim In the Light of the Violin
11 June – 21 June