Salomon’s beguiling gouaches combine German Expressionism with a Matisse-like elegance and have their own strong narrative quality. Both her mother and her grandmother committed suicide, and it’s the one striking moment in Cave’s play that Lotte’s own journey seems to end with her deliberately spurning a chance of escape.
Otherwise, the play breaks out of the cattle truck taking Jews from Drancy in France to the death camp in Poland to show Lotte as an eight-year-old girl losing her mother to mad visions at Christmastime in Berlin; Lotte as a teenager forging a relationship with her new stepmother, an opera singer, while her doctor father becomes ever more immersed in his researches into breast cancer; Lotte living unhappily with her grandparents in Nice.
At no time do you get any sense of an emergent artist, despite Selina Chilton’s best efforts to make the girl interesting; just a series of flatly written domestic scenes and all-purpose persecution episodes (such as the firing of Lotte’s father from the hospital), with a foregone conclusion as the train rattles on and actors blunder on and off.
The guard on the train (Ben Elliott) is a nasty piece of work who stamps on the stale bread, derides the Yom Kippur fast and declares that there is no such thing as a German Jew: “You’re either a German or a Jew,” a statement so obnoxiously platitudinous that it carries no dramatic authority or disturbance value whatsoever at this late stage.
Things pick up a little as Lotte falls in love with her stepmother’s singing teacher (played with a nice, careless sensuality by Dominic Power), and she parcels up the paintings she has dedicated to her American patron, Otillie Moore. But why the series should be called “Life or Theatre” is a mystery left unexplained, even if the evidence of Salomon’s short life remains intolerably moving, however banal this theatrical telling of it.
Some of the acting in Ninon Jerome’s production would barely pass muster in a village hall, and the brutal ugliness of the climactic arrival in Auschwitz is a good example of theatrical power without artistic responsibility. And some of the shoulder-shrugging lines in the play (“I’m a musician; how could I not be Jewish?”) make you cringe with embarrassment whether you’re Jewish or not.
- Michael Coveney