One may feel guilty about saying so, but the truth is that not all the victims of the Holocaust were fascinatingly interesting or talented individuals; of those who were, not all of them led lives conducive to biographical drama; of those who did, not all such dramas are compelling. In short, it is permissible – though unpleasant – to feel that a given play about a Holocaust victim is dull, or over-earnest, or generally not very good. Judi Herman's Saving Charlotte, alas, is all three.
Charlotte Salomon's vast paintings-and-text work Life? or Theatre? [sic] is now on show at the Royal Academy in an exhibition which, I should state at the outset, I have not seen. She called the work "a play with music", and Herman has set about making that literally true, putting on a stage the thinly veiled autobiography which Salomon painted. Herman's play is, however, a piece in which people talk at each other incessantly and preciously; in which people are only allowed to show emotions either, in Charlotte's case, by painting, or in the instances of her mother and grandmother, by killing themselves (suicide was indeed disturbingly rife in her family); in which the arias sung by Lotte's step-mother become accessories to the principal work rather than inspiring it, as was apparently the case with her paintings.
Jacqui Somerville's production acquiesces in the unremitting solemnity of the piece, and even Kerry Shale, the most talented of the four actors, is reduced to delivering lifeless, thumping disquisitions upon aesthetics and personal development. It is, moreover, inaccurate to label this a "Holocaust play", as that atrocity and the preceding rise of Nazism here play a biographical rather than a dramatic role, relegated almost to gruesome devices for moving Lotte along on her life-path.
There would be little question of dramatising such a life but for the twin factors of Salomon's paintings and her death in Auschwitz, yet neither of these informs the play; Herman leaves them to hover over the drama as reverent justifications rather than descending into it to inform what is actually presented to us. The title itself presumably refers to the preservation of the paintings, through which Salomon's story comes to us, yet the play itself treats of this subject not at all. Those interested in Salomon are no better served here than they would be by the catalogue notes of the R.A. exhibition.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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