Chopin as prophet

The Pianist, based on Wladyslaw Szpilman‘s memoirs and reimagined in words and music by the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy, has been enjoying a two-week run at the Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the Manchester Festival, where it won a prize two years ago when presented experimentally in a warehouse attic. I’ve just been to see it, and no way could I sleep afterwards, so I have been up writing this much of the night…

Rudy at the piano twins with gravelly-voiced actor Peter Guinness in representing Szpilman himself. With sparse and immaculate direction by Neil Bartlett, the pair bring to life the now-famous story of the pianist’s survival against all odds in the wartime Warsaw Ghetto. The music includes two pieces by Szpilman himself but mainly consists of Chopin – whose works may never sound the same again to anyone who witnesses this.

The story is, of course, quite powerful enough alone, and the audience is, broadly speaking, a theatre crowd rather than a classical music one – and many of us were moved to tears throughout. As Benedict Nightingale said in his five-star review for The Times the other day, it makes our own problems seem pretty pathetic. But the way that Rudy has integrated choice extracts of Chopin to match the chosen texts is nothing short of phenomenal.

I’ve often felt that Chopin is a master of the dark arts: if he glimpses heaven, it’s through the prism of hell. The popular image of him as precious, feeble and consumptive says much about the physical malady that hampered him for most of his short adult life, but nothing whatever about his creative soul. His aural visions, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, are the stuff of nightmare, frequently more avant-garde even than his sometime rival, Franz Liszt. Rudy has found a way to show us those terrifying visions personified. In this light, Chopin is not only ‘dark’: he becomes a prophet of the apocalypse.

Take the case of the orphanage director who chose to go to his death with his charges, to ease for them the horror of what lay ahead. Even in the gas chamber, Szpilman suggests, this compassionate man would have been trying to spare the children the fear that accompanies the transition of life into death: “It’ll be all right…” Enter the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, in which one repeated note pivots the music from hope to mortal terror and, sure enough, the melody seems to sing “It’ll be all right…” – almost as closely as if Chopin had deliberately set to music the words of his fellow Polish pianist that would be uttered a hundred years afterwards.

After Szpilman, saved by a startling intervention, has watched his parents and siblings climbing aboard the cattle trucks to be deported to their deaths, Rudy performs the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, the ‘Funeral March’ sonata – and, incredibly, everything is there in music: the relentless train, the frantic questioning of the prisoners within, the chaos as the meltdown begins. That sensation is so intense, with Rudy playing like a man possessed, that one could almost imagine that Chopin, the arch Pole-in-exile, had some form of psychic hotline to the 20th century so that the ‘visionary’ quality in his music becomes virtually prescient of what would happen to his beloved homeland a century later… Most of this sonata (but for the funeral march itself) dated from 1839.

I thought I knew this music well, yet I experienced an actual physical shock as the connection of history and sound blazed to life. And I’d have felt exactly the same if I’d never heard a note of it before. That’s where the genius of this theatrical creation lies: it restores narrative to musical performance, breaking through any perceived barriers of communication to show that they don’t exist, and proving – without needing to prove anything – that art has the power to convey the vast gamut of human experience without assumption, point-proving or condescension: just by existing at the best level.

This show – one pianist, one actor, a piano, a chair and some lights – played for four months in Paris, has been performed around the world in ten languages and has won powerful acclaim everywhere from Manchester to Sydney. But it hasn’t yet been seen in London. Here’s a plea to London theatres: 2010 is Chopin Year, the composer’s bicentenary. So take The Pianist and let it run. You won’t regret it.

Three more Manchester performances, finishing Saturday.

Micha and Peter kindly let me photograph them in the theatre after the show…

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