Life? or Theatre?

Review: Charlotte - A Tri-Coloured Play with Music ★★★★ - Charlotte Salomon's autobiographical work explodes onto the stage in glorious tri-colour

Charlotte Salomon produced an extraordinary series of autobiographical gouaches with texts. She overlaid them on transparent paper or wrote straight onto her paintings to provide dialogue, comments and even suggestions of musical accompaniments. Salomon provides a unique account of Jewish family life in Germany, and later France, spanning the troubled years from before World War I until the height of World War II, when she created work in the South of France, before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1943, aged just 26.

With its provocative title it has long fascinated so many who come across it. Playmakers are especially drawn to the work, which seems to invite staging. Yet with few exceptions, success has proved elusive. Now this new play with music gives Salomon a wonderfully authentic and persuasive voice onstage – a vivid life in the theatre.

I wrote in Jewish Renaissance’s April 2017 issue of the ‘tri-coloured’ collaboration of three original creatives. Czech composer Aleš Březina, who has written a glorious new score – witty, haunting and moving by turns, subtly echoing styles of the period in places, to complement the found music Salomon indicates. He writes for just four versatile musicians (who also have cameos and help with scene-shifting alongside the actors/singers) playing a striking and unusual mix of piano, clarinets, cello and trumpet. This is not an opera, but indeed a play with music, for playwright/performer Alon Nashman has written a script that works wonderfully to tell the story and make her characters spring to life in a voice true to Salomon’s, turning on a sixpence from passionate to ironic. He’s a nimble lyricist too, marrying clever apposite words with Březina’s music. Nashman is not afraid to pare down Salomon’s bustling expansive narrative to a lean and pacy account that works just fine to take the audience through her story.

The third ‘colour’ is designer/director Pamela Howard, who does indeed work in a palette trilogy. Red, blue and yellow mix artfully, just as a young Salomon did in wartime France, when the play’s conjecture is that she had access only to these three colours. Howard’s triumph is to realise Salomon’s images in vivid 3D – the ornate baroque furniture of her family‘s Berlin apartment, a series of doors, her bed and a wondrous red ladder. On this Nashman performs acrobatically to match the verbal pyrotechnics of his character Amadeus Daberlohn, the voice teacher as visionary as he is needy and Salomon’s inspiration and lover – though she pricks the pomposity of this self-styled ‘Prophet of Song’ with her knowing humour.  Behind are swishing translucent curtains, echoing Salomon’s scrims and her conjuring of the ghosts of her past, as performers are glimpsed through them in eerie silhouette.

Designer/directors are rare and Howard’s magic is a potent reason for the play’s effectiveness. She has a marvellous knack for making every configuration, every shift of the action and the furniture into dynamic tableaux vivants entirely true to Salomon’s vision.

I’m confident that Salomon would have joyfully recognised herself in Adanya Dunn’s candid, open, funny Charlotte (her youthful soprano deliciously clear); would have ardently embraced Nashman’s sexy, solipsistic Daberlohn; embraced with wonder Ariana Chris’s warm expansive golden-voiced diva Paulinka (her beloved opera-singer stepmother) and Derek Kwan’s upright clever Dr Kann, her father. She would have clung compassionately to Xin Wang’s mournful suicidal duo of her mother Franziska and her Grandmother. But she would have held at arm’s length Thom Allison’s unsympathetic, transgressive Grandfather (a tour de force that also includes other unsavoury characters, including Himmler), even as she enfolded with 'sisterly' feeling Kelly McCormack's ‘beautiful Barbara’, the ideal Aryan artist’s model and her fellow art student. McCormack is also excellent in other telling cameos, including the sullen housemaid in Villefranche who grudgingly thrusts the parcel containing their late daughter’s artwork into her grieving parents’ arms to tell her story to the world.

The Theaturtle Company have indeed heeded the plea written on the parcel, “Take care of this. This is my whole life”, breathing into it real, multi-dimensional life. Salomon’s shade surely joined in the standing ovation for this glorious incarnation of her tri-coloured play with music.

By Judi Herman (who saw the production at Toronto's Luminato Festival)

Photos by Adnaya Dunn and Cylla von Tiedemann, respectively

Charlotte - A Tri-Coloured Play with Music runs Friday 30 June - Sunday 2 July. World Stage Design Festival, Taipei, Taiwan. Visit to view future performances.

Charlotte Salomon's artwork, Life? Or Theatre?, will be exhibited for the first time in full from Wednesday 25 October 2017 - Sunday 25 March 2018. Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

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Thoughts on the centenary of artist Charlotte Salomon

Yesterday, Sunday 16 April, marked Charlotte Salomon’s centenary. I find myself imagining what the trajectory of her life – and art – might have been had she survived the Holocaust. Would she have rebuilt her life and perhaps settled in Amsterdam, where her parents had taken refuge during the war, and raised a family with her husband, fellow refugee Alexander Nagler? Would she have gone on to become a well-known artist and perhaps a grandmother and great-grandmother, founding a dynasty of artists? Perhaps she would now be celebrating her centenary. Her stepmother, the renowned mezzo soprano Paula Salomon-Lindberg, lived to celebrate hers, dying at the age of 102 in the year 2000.

Sadly this is idle speculation. The reality is that her achievement by the age of 26 stands as unique and extraordinary: the series of 765 autobiographical gouaches that make up her artwork Life? or Theatre?, which you can see for the first time in full from this October at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.

The proof of her enduring fascination and the inspiration she continues to provide can be seen from this June in the performances of Charlotte – A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, in Canada and beyond, as its creators told me in the April 2017 issue of Jewish Renaissance.

Details and links to the exhibition of Life? Or Theatre? and performances of Charlotte - A Tricoloured Play with Music are below and I know that this year, and every year, Charlotte Salomon will continue to gain new admirers.

By Judi Herman

An exhibition of Charlotte Salomon’s artwork Life? Or Theatre? will be shown for the first time in full at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, from 25 October to 25 March 2018.

Charlotte – A Tri-Coloured Play with Music will be featured in two Canadian Festivals this June. The Human Rights Arts Festival in Kingston, 1 June, and Luminato Festival, Toronto, 16-18 June. Then from 30 June to 2 July at World Stage Design Festival Experimental Theatre in Taipei, Taiwan.

Visit for other upcoming performances.

Allons enfants de la Patrie! France during and after WWII provides fertile soil for rich drama, music and art this year

What links London’s latest hit musical An American in Paris, a revival of Incident in Vichy – an Arthur Miller drama not seen in this country for 50 years – and the centenary of the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, who continues to enchant more than 70 years after she perished in the Holocaust?

The clue is in the titles of the theatre pieces. Arthur Miller's Incident in Vichy concerns the fate of 10 men detained in Vichy, France, at the height of World War II in 1942, when Vichy became notoriously synonymous with the French government of Marshal Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis. An American in Paris, freshly adapted from the much-loved Gershwin movie musical, is reimagined with a story set in the City of Light in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The heroine is a young Jewish ballerina safely hidden by Parisians, while her parents have disappeared in wartime Provence. And the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, escaping Nazi Germany to take refuge in the South of France, was herself arrested in Villefranche in September 1943 aged just 26 – within a month she had been murdered on arrival in Auschwitz.

Salomon was born 100 years ago this April and in the April edition of Jewish Renaissance, which will reach subscribers just before Passover, I explore the continuing allure of her life and work as expressed in the 765 autobiographical series of gouaches that make up her Life? Or Theatre?, in the company of the co-creators of a new play with music telling her story "in three dimensions".

I have just had the good fortune to marvel at the glorious evocation of the newly-liberated City of Light in American in Paris – a show that adds depth to the light-as-air story of the much-loved film musical without losing any of its charm and vitality, thanks to a fresh plot with Jewish protagonists at its heart. Find out more in my American in Paris review.

My most recent review is of an extraordinarily well-cast and tightly-directed revival of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. The production successfully ratchets up the tension of Miller’s 90-minute morality play examining the different responses and fates of those 10 men picked off the streets of Vichy by a Nazi regime intent on rounding up Jews for deportation. It continues at London's Finborough Theatre until Saturday 22 April.

By Judi Herman

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