Review by Annette White
Wladyslaw Szpilman was a brilliant Jewish musician who survived the second world war in Warsaw against all the odds. His story is told in words and music at the Manchester International Festival, performed in English for the first time and directed by Neil Bartlett. Even before Polanski’s film of the same name, this version was conceived by the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy, at the suggestion of Szpilman’s son.
The setting is the wood-beamed attic of the Science and Industry Museum’s 1830 warehouse; atmospheric lighting; in the centre, a concert piano. The actor Peter Guinness powerfully narrates extracts from Szpilman’s memoir, and Mikhail Rudy plays Chopin, mainly nocturnes and preludes from Szpilman’s repertoire, and some of the Pianist’s own compositions.
The story unflinchingly tells of the atrocities, brutality and hardship of life in the ghetto. In 1942 Szpilman’s family were among those rounded up to be transported to the death camps, but Wladyslaw was pulled out of the line by a Jewish policeman at the last moment. Now he had to continue surviving.
When we re-encounter him, he is fending for himself alone in the ruins of Warsaw in 1944. Loneliness is the keynote as he hides in attics and on rooftops. He is discovered by a German army captain who, having heard him play Chopin, decides to save his life.
Szpilman’s story is told without any resentment or desire for revenge. Every heartbreaking segment of narrative is counterbalanced by a beautiful piece of music, passionately played by Mikhail Rudy, whose family were themselves victims of Stalinist purges. The Pianist is an extraordinary experience, demonstrating that human beings can sink to the lowest depths, but also rise to the greatest heights.
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