Unusually for the Royal Exchange, The Pianist is not an in-house
production and the theatre has not so much been dressed for the occasion. Quite the opposite, as it is stripped bare.
Deepening shadows are cast across bare floorboards by Chris Davey's
stage-level floodlights to promote a growing sense of apprehension. In the
centre of the stage is, of course, a piano.
The memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman have been edited, rather than adapted,
into a script by performer Mikhail Rudy and director Neil Bartlett. As a result
the script retains the raw feel of the life of a Polish Jew who survived the
gradual destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
The play is perfectly-paced and although based upon autobiographical material,
we learn little about Szpilman during the first half which conveys rich detail
about life in the ghetto - children smuggling contraband and citizens driven mad
by loss. All we hear from Szpilman is the common complaint of musicians; that
the cafe patrons would rather talk than listen to him play piano.
This changes with the emotional climax where survivor Szpilman loses not
only his family but his entire community. The play details his struggle to
retain his humanity against loneliness, loss and guilt. Music plays a vital
part in the survival process as Szpilman recalls music scores as a shield
against his circumstances.
It is appropriate, therefore, that the character is
portrayed by two performers. As well as editing the text Mikhail Rudy gives us
the spiritual aspects of Szpilman by performing live pieces from the pianist's
concert repertoire - mainly mournful Chopin. These are played beautifully and
in full rather than as excerpts so as to give equal status with the text. Rudy
also takes-on a reactive role - flinching when Szpilman scolds his brother for
surrendering to the authorities.
The audience is also drawn into the action as director Bartlett creates an
almost embarrassing level of intimacy. Peter Guinness, who narrates,
maintains eye contact with all levels of the theatre. The weight of the
memoirs is such that anything other than a subtle performance would be too much. Fortunately Guinness is restrained so that on the occasions when his voice
cracks the effect is all the more powerful. He makes us aware of the other
characters in the play by vocal intonation rather than physical impersonation.
Although Guinness and Rudy never speak to each other their inter-dependence
is clear from the performances. Guinness seems to draw strength from the music
played by Rudy. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Szpilman retained his
sanity by recalling musical pieces.
By the time this is revealed the
performances have made clear that, for Szpilman, music was a defence against
the obscenity of the War and as necessary as food for survival.
It will be some time before the Royal Exchange will find another visiting
production as strong, stirring, powerful and as inspring as The Pianist.