Simon Thomas in the West Country
2 September 2023
A play like Farewell Mister Haffmann shouldn’t really be as entertaining as it is. Combining a plot about a Jewish man hiding from the Nazis in a cellar in Paris in 1942 with the story of a young couple desperate to conceive a baby doesn’t suggest a fun evening in the theatre, but it’s surprising how many laughs the situation raises. The two plot lines are uncomfortably tied together, but this is a play that is always nudging in the direction of the absurd.
Lisa Dillon, Ciarán Owens and Nigel Lindsay.
Photo credit: Simon Annand.
Jean-Phillipe Daguerre, an eminent French writer and director, wrote the play in 2016 and it was first staged in Avignon the following year. Since then, it’s played all over France and the Middle East, garnering no fewer than four prestigious Molière Awards. It now finally makes its British premiere in a witty adaptation by Jeremy Sams. It would be easy to blame the delay in bringing it to the UK on the splendid isolation that we now enjoy but, in truth, English theatre never was that quick at taking up product from beyond our borders.
The moral certainty of the social media age is a far cry from the free discussion of Sartre and Camus’s Left Bank cafe culture and Daguerre panders to it too much. There is a lack of complexity in his characters and in his oft-repeated motto “courage is stronger than fear”. The Jewish man is saintly, the husband weak and foolish, the wife self-sacrificing and sensible, the Nazis thoroughly repellent. The only slight discomfort is how unexpectedly funny the Nazi couple are in their grotesque nastiness.
The ultimate fate of the characters is in keeping with the simplicity of their morality. The good end well and the bad end badly, although in reality life is rarely so neat. The play provokes thought up to a point but these are thoughts we’ve all had a thousand times and there’s little to challenge in a play that is as socially compliant as the age we now live in.
For the majority of the evening, we witness the trials of the main trio, in a series of scenes of between one and three minutes’ duration, as they tackle the prospect of creating a life while saving a life, an interesting enough concept in itself.
Mr Haffmann, a jeweller moderately successful in pre-occupation Paris, knows that he now has to lead a very different life. Having packed his family off to neutral Switzerland, he proposes to his Catholic employee Pierre Vigneau that he and his wife take over the business and live in the shop. The catch is that Haffmann will be hiding in the cellar. Vigneau has a counter-proposal: he’ll go along with the plan, provided Haffmann makes his wife pregnant, so that the couple can have the longed-for child that they can’t conceive themselves. So far, so strange.
Photo credit: Simon Annand.
Daguerre now introduces two real-life people into the mix. Otto Abetz was the Nazi ambassador to Paris personally appointed by Hitler in 1940. This was an unusual move, as Hitler hardly needed a representative in a land he now possessed but it’s an honour he exclusively bestowed on a city that he had avoided destroying in his blitzkrieg through Western Europe.
Along with his French wife Suzanne, Abetz enjoyed a long spell of Parisian comfort, packing the Jewish population off to camps and plundering their artworks, which is to become a key theme in the play. What comes across clearly is that anti-Semitism was embedded in French society and the occupation only developed what was already there.
So successful is Vigneau at running the business, producing highly prized necklaces for the Nazi occupiers, that Abetz becomes a valued customer and ends up joining the couple for dinner. In a particularly bizarre turn of events, Haffmann decides to leave his dank cellar-prison and join them for the evening. There’s pork on the menu!
The cast, under Lindsay Posner’s direction, are uniformly excellent. Lisa Dillon brings depth and dignity to the role of Isabelle Vigneau, coping with courage throughout the absurd situation in which her husband and her own need for a child puts her. Ciarán Owens is a buffoonish Pierre; the insistent hammering of his tap-dancing routines (one of the means by which he’s able to absent himself while his ex-boss attempts to inseminate his wife), constantly reminding us of his self-imposed humiliation.
Nigel Lindsay’s forthrightly decent Haffmann gains our sympathy from the get-go; it’s a performance carefully divested of any stereotypical traits, making it almost believable when he passes himself off at dinner as Vigneau’s country cousin.
Alexander Hanson is chillingly jocular as the deceptively urbane ambassador, who ratchets up the tension with a slow and steady revelation of information he holds on the parties. Clearly tyrannized beneath an extravagant display of drunken floundering, Frau Abetz is played with an excruciating exactitude by Josefina Gabrielle. It’s a fine ensemble who mine Daguerre’s text for all they’re worth.
The tiny space of the Ustinov Studio is skilfully manipulated in Paul Wills’s settings, which switch from cellar to living room with lightning speed. There’s a haunting background of jackboots, dogs barking, and gunfire in Giles Thomas’s soundtrack. Although it’s completely appropriate for this space, higher production values may be needed if the production finds its way to the West End.