Holocaust Memorial Day takes place every year on January 27th and to mark the occasion this year, the Marylebone Theatre have put on an adaptation of Jean-Claude Grumberg’s French language novella The Most Precious Of Goods translated by Nicolas Kent who also directed the piece.
It tells the story of a woodcutter’s wife somewhere in Eastern Europe in 1943. From one of the many “goods” trains that pass her home every day, a little bundle, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl, is thrown containing something she’s yearned for all her life – a baby – for these are not “goods” trains but cattle trucks transporting Jews to concentration camps and someone is so desperate to save their child’s life, they’ve thrown it out of the train.
Told as a fairy story – it even starts with “Once upon a time”, The Most Precious Of Goods is a harrowing and true tale about the holocaust told not only from the woodcutter’s wife’s point of view but also from what it was like to be in one of those horrendous train carriages and beyond.
On a simple set with a sofa, a screen on what is projected various slides and drapes on what are printed the shape of trees which when seen closely are made up of random numbers, the tale is narrated by Samantha Spiro with help from cellist Gemma Rosefield who either backs her with slices of music or jagged sound effects – she also sings and whistles too. For the most part, Spiro is seated telling the story but she occasionally gets up to describe what’s happening and apart from the woodcutter’s wife, she also voices various characters that form part of the narrative.
Spiro as always is superb and she draws us into the narrative wonderfully even though she’s reading from the book. This is fine when she’s sitting down as she can be seen as our guide through the story but she’s still reading when she stands and moves about; this is possibly because she was a late replacement for Allan Corduner who dropped out due to illness but it does make things a little static.
However, the main problem with The Most Precious Of Goods as a piece of theatre is that it isn’t really that. There are visuals with the various black and white photos shown behind Spiro but these are odd – sometimes illustrative of what the narrator is telling us but sometimes just random shots of snowy woods so they don’t add a lot to the narrative. The Most Precious Of Goods is basically a superb radio play and would get to a much bigger audience if it could be broadcast on Radio 4, or even as a podcast.
We must never forget what happened in Europe eighty years ago and works such as The Most Precious Of Goods are a warning that atrocities like the Holocaust must never happen again, although it seems that not everyone has been listening and we’re still hearing stories daily that appall us. The Most Precious Of Goods is not the most powerful of these stories – even this theatre did a more potent piece on the same subject last year with The White Factory – but Jean-Paul Grumberg’s story of his family and their sufferings is well worth the telling – even if it would work even better in another medium.
Review by Alan Fitter
Winter 1943, somewhere in war-torn Eastern Europe: a poor woodcutter’s wife finds a little bundle thrown in the snow from a moving goods train. It contains something for which she has always yearned, but…
Jean-Claude Grumberg’s best-selling French language novella, The Most Precious of Goods, is story-telling at its most profound and has been translated into 20 languages.
Told with a fairy tale-like lyricism, this gripping story of love and hope, set against the terrible backdrop of the Holocaust, reminds us that humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.
Jean-Claude Grumberg – Writer
Nicolas Kent – Director/Translator
Carly Brownbridge – Designer
Judy Goldhill – Projected Photography
Matt Eagland – Lighting Designer
The Most Precious of Goods opens at the Marylebone Theatre on 22nd January 2024 to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day (27th January).
The Most Precious of Goods