A friend of mine once speculated that the crassest line imaginable in an historical drama would be, "Hello, Chopin - my, that's a nasty cough." To the best of my knowledge, it has never actually been uttered (although when Hugh Grant played the consumptive composer in the film Impromptu, his first and last speeches were both composed entirely of "ahem"s); David Abramovitz has the occasional discreet spasm over the 90 minutes of Bruno Villien's Nocturne For Lovers in Chichester's Minerva Studio, but is confined for the most part to the piano keyboard.
Kado Kostzer's production calls for a pianist rather than an actor in the role of Chopin, and Abramovitz fills the bill. His speeches – delivered diffidently in a hybrid accent mixing the performer's native New York with traces of French and a dollop of theatrical English – total perhaps 60 seconds. His playing is infinitely more eloquent, although this too seems a little restrained at first, perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of a theatrical rather than a concert milieu. The vast majority of the text is derived from the letters of Chopin's lover George Sand, and spoken by the enviably un-aged Leslie Caron – although almost half as old again as Sand when the events recounted end in 1849, Caron still carries some of the air which first endeared her to cinemagoers, looking scarcely out of place in the writer's youthful masculine attire.
The fatal weakness lies in the piece itself. In effect, it is no more than two intertwined recitals – one spoken, the other musical. The performers occasionally respond to each other's material (Abramovitz to Sand's words, Caron to Chopin's music) but, even when in close proximity to one another, they never have an opportunity worth the name to interact. Caron does her best to deliver her texts dramatically, with grand gestures and at one point a gratuitous puppet-show, but the real drama is not supplied by the material presented here; rather, we the audience must be willing to imbue what we see and hear with both emotional heft and historical significance provided by a combination of extrinsic knowledge and programme notes.
The programme portrays this production as a labour of love: Caron's for Sand, Kostzer's for both the play and the actress he first saw on the screen as a child. As a first step from which to proceed, this is fair enough; as the only perceptible motivating passion, it is insufficient to invigorate a play which is not really a play at all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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