Music Review: East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil

What: East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil

When: 23 February 2018, 8pm

Where: Elder Hall, North Terrace, Adelaide

Who: Written by Philippe Sands

Performed by Philippe Sands, Katja Riemann, Laurent Naouri, and Guillaume de Chassy

Directed by Nina Brazier

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Image credit: Orion Publishing

It is October 12, 1946. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, sits in the dock in Courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany. He has just been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. Two men sit in the prosecution: Cambridge academic Hersch Lauterpacht and Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Both men’s families have been murdered by the Nazi regime in Poland under Frank’s jurisdiction. The terms they coined to describe Frank’s actions – ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ – would go on to define international law for decades to come and critically influence modern ideals of morality.

Based on international lawyer Philippe Sands’ book, East West Street: A Song of Good and Evil is part literary reading, part play, and part musical performance. It tells the story of three men and the roles they played in originating the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg trials. Using the city of Lviv as a narrative anchor, the show traces these men’s connections through their work, personal histories, and the music that accompanied their lives.

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Author Philippe Sands. Image credit: Antonio Zazueta Olmos

The performance was introduced by the eerie notes of Maurice Ravel’s “L’énigme éternelle”, played expertly by Guillaume de Chassy on piano and accompanied by baritone Laurent Naouri. Naouri’s passionate delivery perfectly conveyed the tragedy and profundity of the show’s message, his voice almost cracking with emotion at times. The haunting refrain of “L’énigme éternelle” acted as a leitmotif, returning with unsettling prescience at sombre moments. Though the program canvassed a variety of music, from popular 1940s tunes to Beethoven and Leonard Cohen, it was Ravel’s poignant Yiddish melody that defined the show’s atmosphere.

Amidst the music, Sands and Katja Riemann narrated the stories of Lauterpacht, Lemkin, and Frank. Sands possessed appropriate poise and gravitas, with the manner of a documentary narrator. East West Street came alive most affectingly in the scenes that allowed Riemann to show her theatrical skill, however, and the courtroom trial of Hans Frank was the soaring high point. Riemann’s performance was astonishing as she assumed the role of Frank. Sands acted as prosecutor, circling her like a hawk as he questioned, ‘did you participate in the annihilation of the Jews?’ The courtroom tension was palpable with Riemann’s delivery of Frank’s admission: ‘I say yes…1000 years will pass, and still this guilt of Germany will not be erased’. As Frank sat in his cell contemplating his fate, Naouri’s heart-wrenching performance of Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (“Have mercy, my God”) made plain the desperation of a man facing the ultimate reckoning for his monstrous crimes.

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Katja Riemann performing in East West Street. Image credit: Nina Brazier

The show’s greatest weakness, however, was an over-reliance on reading from the book. One could give East West Street more leeway in this regard, since it is technically more a literary reading than a ‘play’ in the traditional sense. Still, a book in the hands of a performer can prove distracting and prevent connection with the audience, especially when the actor’s head is lowered to read. Considering how superb the more ‘acted’ scenes were, it would have been good to see the performers bring the text to life in a few more ways to combat the occasional over-reliance on narration.

Despite this, East West Street told a compelling story deftly interwoven with poignant musical interludes. It powerfully connected abstract legal concepts like ‘crimes against humanity’ with the deeply personal stories of the people involved. Nowhere was this more apparent than a page from Lemkin’s notebook projected behind the actors, with the word ‘genocide’ written and crossed out dozens of times, and in the centre, highlighted in red, the simple name ‘Frank’. These powerful moments remind us never to forget the human suffering behind the fights for justice and human rights. In our era of building walls and turning back boats, it is a message we sorely need to hear.

4 out of 5 stars

— Tamika Glouftsis

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