July 08, 2007

The Pianist @ Manchester Museum of Science and Industry

At where? The Manchester International Festival, as well as using most of the city’s established venues (perhaps the most high-profile being Damon Albarn/Gorillaz’ new Chinese opera at the Palace), has claimed a few more unusual spaces for certain performances. Tonight we entered the Museum of Science and Industry, walking past the disused railtracks and old locomotives, before entering an enormous shed filled with mist, where the torches of stewards cut a surreal moving pathway of light, and ascended a winding staircase to the clinks and roars of distant machinery. This atmospheric entrance led us to a wooden loft room, a loan Steinway grand piano standing central with the audience sat around on all sides.

The Pianist promotional art

We were here for ‘The Pianist’, a new production based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish pianist who also inspired the multi-Oscar winning Roman Polanski film of the same name. His story has since been picked up by acclaimed concert pianist Mikhail Rudy, who (not having seen the film) had the idea for a new production, combining Szpilman’s narrative with his musical repertoire. The result was 90 minutes of combined music and speech, with actor Peter Guinness performing as Szpilman and Rudy himself interspersing the story with Chopin’s music, primarily Preludes and Nocturnes, as well as a couple of Szpilman’s own compositions.

The story was of the holocaust- Szpilman, a Polish Jew, was right at the centre of the war when the Germans invaded in 1939, and the extracts used here told of trains and concentration camps, of families separated and of his own miraculous escape from the train which took his family away, and his survival by a thread in a cold attic in an abandoned building. Guinness, who I last saw in the RSC’s ‘Women Beware Women’ on wonderfully evil form as The Ward, was entirely convincing in the part. Walking round the audience, addressing us directly yet from an unseen distance, he inhabited his part, becoming indistinguishable from the man whose story he was telling. This was a man who had the loquacity to describe something in harrowing detail, yet with the constant frustration of knowing that words, however vivid, could never capture the pain and suffering he had borne. There was a sense of guilt at his own survival, and of little triumph as he wondered what there was to go on too.

Mikhail Rudy

Where words failed Szpilman, though, music took over. Rudy’s performance was extraordinary, both technically flawless and dramatically expressive. Ranging from utter chaos to near silence, his playing was rivetting and told its own story, taking over at those points when emotion overwhelmed the narrator and carrying we the listeners to a place where narration wasn’t needed, where the emotions said everything we needed to know. Chopin’s pieces can often be over-dramatised, lending themselves to a drama which becomes overblown in the hands of less accomplished musicians. Rudy’s sensitivity to the composer, particularly in tempo and dynamics, allowed the music to guide, rather than force, our emotions, helping the audience rediscover the raw impact of some of Chopin’s best known music. As my girlfriend said on the way out, “You’re unlikely to ever hear Chopin played so well again” (thanks to Charlie for the musical analysis!).

The role of music in this story was brought vividly to life as Guinness described his discovery in his hiding place by a German officer. Forced to play upon his admission that he was a pianist, Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne no. 20 in C Sharp Minor, which Rudy proceeded to play in full. Hearing the very piece of music which had saved Szpilman’s life at this point suddenly brought the story very intimately into the room where we sat.

The interplay between the two was fascinating, from the moment in which their eyes first met as they entered the room at different ends and stood there- the narrator almost afraid to touch the piano. One piece was played with Guinness’ hands on Rudy’s shoulders, another with Guinness sharing the piano stool and dictating when to stop. The two became two parts of the same man and story, exploring different areas of the one experience. This was in no small way helped by Chris Davey’s wonderful lighting design, which had beams of light piercing the misty darkness, illuminating the two performers from all angles, sometimes only allowing Guinness’ face to be seen, sometimes darkening all except the rim of the piano. As sensitive as the touch of the pianist, this was lighting used as an instrument, adding to the atmosphere while never distracting from the performance.

This was a powerful evening, and a wonderful combination of music and theatre that demonstrated to great effect how the two forms can push each other to greater things even in the smallest of venues. If you have a chance to catch it before it closes on July 15th, I strongly recommend heading up to Manchester.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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