Two generations come to terms with survivor guilt in a moving stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel
“Secrets are lies by another name” is the arresting statement at the heart of The Mozart Question, which explores the corrosive legacy of survivor guilt and the redemptive power of music. The novel, by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, provides a way into talking about the Holocaust for young people that is absorbing and moving for adults too. Director Lata Nobes’ simple and luminous staging of Simon Reade’s theatre adaptation tells his story wonderfully effectively.
Here it is a one-woman show safe in the talented hands of actor/musician Oliva Wormald, playing Paola Levi (originally Paolo in the book), a world-famous Venetian violinist who reveals a hidden piece of her past for the first time on the eve of her 50th birthday concert. Wormald, fresh out of drama school, also plays all the other characters, plus her violin. Her instrument, made around 1910, is actually a central character itself and possibly a Holocaust survivor as, extraordinarily, it is inscribed with a Star of David.
Wormald’s Paola treats her listeners to Vivaldi and Bach, but the question of the title refers to the fact that she's never played Mozart. With the recent death of her barber father, she is ready to open up to the audience. So she morphs into her nine-year-old self to go back to the barber shop where she loves to watch Papa at work, though she wonders why the former musician no longer plays. Mama shares the secret of the violin hidden upstairs, but swears her to silence and will say no more.
Mesmerised by the strains of another violin, played by elderly canal-side busker Benjamin Horowitz, she secretly befriends him and he teaches her to play on the instrument she smuggles out of her home. It becomes clear that he knows her parents, that her mother too is a violinist and that all three survived the horrors of the death camps through being forced to play Mozart in the camp orchestra as their fellow Jews were marched to the gas chambers. The role the old man and the young girl and their music play in helping Levi's parents come to terms with their survivor guilt is the moving matter of an intricate account that answers the title’s question in under an hour.
Wormald commands the space with her assured storytelling and musicianship. Sharing her story over a pot of mint tea, she effortlessly plays Horowitz as well as the parents. The intimate staging simply and sweetly conjures Venice and Horowitz’s busking pitch with a streetlamp. A Venetian canalscape on the wall also morphs into Hannah Snaith’s inspired animations, starting with a close-up of the barber shop shears that delightfully start snipping, complete with sound. Later, Snaith starkly evokes the death camp and its suffering inmates. In a telling detail, Wormald’s Levi wears fashionable grey-striped culottes, echoing the emblematic striped suits of the camp’s gaunt musicians pictured above.
It is to be hoped that this production will get the extensive tour it deserves. Morpurgo’s touching tale works especially well as revealing and thought-provoking family theatre.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Tara Carlin
This production of The Mozart Question appeared at the Camden Fringe 2019. To find out when it’s next on, visit instagram.com/themozartquestion