Tonight’s showing of Haim: In The Light Of A Violin sets itself no easy task. To justify the purpose, being or essence of a production, the performing artist must set his or her art as a symbol in the face of immense adversity. In this case it is Nazism and the resultant anti-Semitic persecution during World War II. Here art is seen as hope or indeed hope as art. Ultimately, this is an ambitious production that runs the risk of flailing in a mire of romanticised and over-sentimental pseudohistory in front of an audience searching for something both harrowing and uplifting, soul-destroying yet simultaneously life-affirming.
To an extent this production succeeds in its objective. Haim – In The Light Of A Violin, written by Gérald Garutti and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, maps out the true story of Haim Lipsky, a working-class Jewish boy who discovers a zest and passion for life through the playing of the violin. We follow the prodigal musician from Poland to Germany (and the Nazi death camps therein) to Israel where hope is lived, sought and ultimately misplaced. His journey is brought to life by actress Mélanie Doutey accompanied by a four-piece musical ensemble and segues between beautiful and intricate (sometimes riotous) classical, Klemzer-style music and a sullen, powerful spoken narrative.
Within this production the music acts as a kind of overscore and its absence at times is every bit as powerful. Violinist Yair Benaim, pianist Dana Ciocarlie, accordionist Alexis Kune and clarinettist Samuel Maquin come together as a robust and versatile orchestra. Their playing is fluid and expertly transports the audience into the period (helped by a fantastic choice of venue, The Print Room grounds the production by excellently recalling the pre-war Berlin Vaudevillian music halls). The narrow Polish boulevards, street artists performing jigs and the birth of an unchecked passion roll straight into the discordant arrival of war, the hardships of Auschwitz and the vacant post-war homes, all of which are imaginatively captured on strings and keys.
The music flows (the violin offering its own heartfelt soliloquies), the drama captivates (Doutey is sublime as our charismatic guide), but it is in the crossing of these two elements that the production seems to stutter and stall. Far from being seamless, it at times lacks the sense of life it so passionately attempts to advocate. Although undeniably part drama and part concert unfortunately I was unable to forgive the occasional contrived and forced nature of certain sudden musical interludes, at times seemingly unearned by the immediate build-up to them. On top of this the active employment of musicians-turned-actors in certain scenes also left a lot to be desired and oftentimes the production ran flat because of uncertain stagecraft.
Haim Lipsky’s story is profoundly stoic, but in this production it is somewhat awkwardly realised. At times it is indeed existential and inspiring but ultimately the faultless musical skill on display tonight was let down by under-energised performances elsewhere. Although standing as a testimony of defying conquerors through the art of hope Haim doesn’t quite conquer the art of performance let alone other, greater concepts.
Haim – In The Light Of A Violin is playing Print Room at The Coronet until 21 June. For more information and tickets, see The Print Room website.
Photo: Olivier Roller