Haim – In The Light Of A Violin

Last night, I was lucky to see Haim – In The Light Of A Violin (or Haim – A La Lumiere d’un Violon, as it is known in French).

The true story of violinist prodigy and Holocaust survivor Haïm Lipsky is written and directed with great sensibility by Gérald Garutti and performed in French with English surtitles in a new translation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement).

The UK premiere opened last weekend at the gorgeous Coronet on Notting Hill Gate. This was the first great discovery of the evening. Built in 1898 as a playhouse, the Coronet became a cinema in 1923, before recently being returned to its original use as a theatre by Print Room who are doing an amazing job at uncovering and restoring its beauty. As we took our seats, the audience collectively and spontaneously lowered their voices, we were ready, eager to start witnessing something. And as I was waiting, images of Les Bouffes du Nord (the Parisian theatre made famous by Peter Brook) sprung to my mind. The Coronet possesses the same kind of dilapidated grandeur, the same grace. It’s like walking into a new dimension where magic can happen.

The lights came down and the silence fell upon us, violinist Yaïr Benaïm took his position centre stage. For a suspended moment, he contemplated the bow and violin he was holding in each hand as if they were strange and wonderful extensions of his own body and then… notes started to flow and we were embarked on a musical tale about Haïm Lipsky – a Polish Jew from a modest family who was saved from the the hell of Auschwitz by his extraordinary ability as a violinist.

The show is performed by four virtuoso musicians (Yaïr Benaïm, Dan Ciorcale, Alexis Kune and Samuel Maquin) and actress Melanie Doutey who delivers the spoken narration of Haïm’s journey from childhood to the promised land of Israel with great animation, poise and truthfulness. It would have been even more poignant had she not been miked up. Although the extra support must have seemed necessary for the moments which require her to speak on top of the music, a solution enabling the actress’s own instrument to soar would have allowed us to be even more moved by her voice. Microphones create a distance in the theatre (unless the size of the space absolutely requires it, of course) when we want to be as close as possible to an actor’s live performance. But apart from this detail, the theatrical form developed by Gérald Garutti here is unique and very evocative. The main character is embodied in turn by the actress, the musicians and most of all by the music itself. We are treated to an odyssey which alternates between classical music (Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Enesco, Barto, Bach, Léonard Bernstein), spoken word and klezmer melodies.

As the story approaches its end, we hear this line: J’ai dû apprendre une autre langue… ‘I had to learn a new language’* This resonated very strongly in me with something that is rarely mentioned: as enriching as it may be, the acquiring of a new idiom can sometimes be the result of a very painful event. A geographical displacement, a tragic rupture can force us onto new shores where we must swim or drown.
And with relation to languages, Haïm Lipsky inevitably makes me think of another extraordinary Polish Jew: Michel Thomas (born Moniek “Moshe” Kroskof just 6 years before). He was a polyglot linguist and war-time spy who developed the ‘Michel Thomas Method’, a revolutionary language-learning system which I have adopted to teach French.

I was lost in all those thoughts when the second part of the sentence hit me J’ai dû apprendre une autre langue…la langue du silence, ‘I had to learn a new language… the language of silence’. And unexpected as it was, it immediately made sense. We found out that after surviving the unimaginable atrocities of the concentration camp, Haïm never referred to Auschwitz except as the place he had ‘left’. He focused on passing on his love of music to his children and grand children who all went on to become internationally renowned musicians.
And that is ultimately what I take away from this evening: the power of transmission. Whether we pass on to our children, our close ones, pupils or strangers in the darkness of a theatre… Transmission is what keeps our humanity alive. This show is a beautiful example of it.

Haïm- in the Light of a Violin runs at the Print Room 21 June 2016.


*I am quoting from memory.

Photo credit: Haïm Lipsky and Melanie Doutey by Olivier Roller.