BBC Radio 4, 26 June 2010
First performed at the Manchester International Festival of 2007, The Pianist recalls the experiences of an unnamed Jewish musician trapped in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. He begins the war as a member of a happy family, living with his father, mother and two sisters; by the end, he has not only lost all of them, but has been forced to live like an animal, stuck in an attic and living on scraps for fear of discovery.
The narrative is structured as a series of monologues (read by Peter Guinness), interspersed with pieces of Chopin (played by Mikhail Rudy). The monologues describe harrowing experiences, such as his family being rounded up by the Nazis and herded into trains smelling of chlorine. The reason for this is simple: all Jews in Warsaw are going to be "melted down" - a much more effective means of disposing them, instead of putting them into concentration camps. By sheer chance the narrator escapes and spends the rest of the war in the attic - not playing the piano but managing to read books where necessary. On one occasion he encounters an enemy officer and believes that his days are numbered; by sheer chance, however, the officer turns out to be a member of Polish radio - someone who admires classical music and asks the narrator to play.
Eventually the war ends and the narrator emerges to find his beautiful city completely destroyed: the Nazis not only razed all the buildings to the ground, but removed all evidence of the death camps, where all the Jews died. The task of discovering a new life seems impossible at present; all he can do is to breathe the winter air and watch the snow falling in large flakes.
On several occasions Guinness' delivery seemed almost matter-of-fact, almost as if he were recounting ordinary events. This rendered them even more harrowing; this was perhaps the only way he could make sense of what was happening around him. Rudy's musical interludes were occasionally too long, which had the effect of interrupting the narrative. On the other hand, perhaps the music was intrinsic to the drama; this constitutes another strategy to make sense of wartime turmoil (remember Myra Hess' wartime concerts in London).
Memorably filmed some years ago by Roman Polanski, with a script by Sir Ronald Harwood, The Pianist is a powerful story that works on any medium. First broadcast in 2007, this radio version deserved its repeat.