Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – until 18 August 2019
Part of Camden Fringe
Little Paola is subliminally drawn to the sound of the violin. When she discovers her father has a violin hidden on top of the wardrobe, she ignores her mother’s warnings and secretly takes it for her own. It is only when she asks the local busker for lessons, that she discovers her parents have a secret too…
Michael Morpurgo’s story, The Mozart Question, is essentially about the solace and joy great music gifts us. For Paola’s parents, however, beautiful music presages pain and shame and guilt.
Her teacher reveals that he and her mother and father were violinists together in the concentration camps. While fellow Jews were worked to death or murdered, the three violinists were playing Mozart for their resting captors.
In Lata Nobes’ elegant revival of The Mozart Question, an illustration (created by Hannah Snaith especially for the show) of the three violinists hovers above the stage. Sad faced, they are dressed in the striped pyjamas of the prisoner. Below them, in matching striped trousers, stands Paola, violin in hand. Little wonder that Paola’s father will never again listen to Mozart, let alone lift his violin to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
While fellow Jews were worked to death or murdered, the three violinists were playing Mozart for their resting captors.
Olivia Wormald is a winning Paola (Paulo in the book), taking on both the role of the storyteller and the performer. Addressing the audience as an adult Paola, she takes us back to her childhood when she first hears the busker, Benjamin, outside the family flat in Venice.
In the dark starkness of the Gatehouse, Snaith’s illuminations provide occasional insights as she talks and plays her way across the timeline from childhood to middle age. We get snatches of Vivaldi and Bach and… Mozart. Might this young woman somehow reconcile her father with music?
The sadness of this stage adaptation by Simon Reade is offset by Wormald’s practical delivery, changing voice only when there is dialogue between parents and child, or child and teacher.
In some ways, the evenness of tone undermines the themes – the sheer barbarity of the holocaust, that music transcends good or evil in both its appreciation and execution, that survival is our greatest need and yet to survive evil can sometimes feel like the greater punishment. On the other hand, it gives you plenty to think about on the bus ride home.
This is well-crafted and executed storytelling.