Theatre review: Farewell Mister Haffmann

Words by Melissa Blease

Ever since the ghost of Banquo turned up to disrupt newly-crowned king Macbeth’s grand banquet, the dramatic/cringe-inducing/socially psychotic (or a combination of all three) ‘dinner party from hell’ has been one of the most effective plot devices in theatre, the intimate, domestic set-up amplifying the power dynamics, hidden tensions and underlying grievances among attendees.

The devastating ‘kitchen supper’ in French writer, actor and director Jean-Phillipe Daguerre’s stage adaptation of his award-winning drama Farewell Mister Haffmann – translated by Jeremy Sams, immaculately directed by Lindsay Posner and premiering in Bath – sneaks up on you; by the time the dinner guests leave the party, the electrifying shocks that have been delivered leave the audience in need of a very strong digestif. 

Paris, 1942: the city is under Nazi occupation. Having left it too late to follow his wife and family to the safety of Geneva, Jewish jeweller Joseph Haffmann makes an agreement with long-standing employee Pierre Vigneau that Pierre and his wife Isabelle take over the running of the business and move into Mister Haffmann’s home above it, allowing Mister Haffmann to hide in the cellar. Pierre and Isabelle agree to the plan on one rather extraordinary condition: Mister Haffmann will father a child for the couple on behalf of infertile Pierre.

This tense, 90-minute psychodrama is played out in a series of short vignettes on Paul Wills’s simple, 2-split set depicting the Vigneau’s kitchen and Haffmann’s cellar, with composer and sound designer Giles Thomas’s carefully-crafted soundscape (genuine antisemitic broadcasts; soldiers goose-stepping down the street; smatterings of gunfire) adding harrowingly effective atmospherics.

Inevitably, the convoluted domestic set-up combined with an already foreboding backdrop of escalating menace is strewn with multiple pitfalls yet to be fully considered by any of the troubled trio – and, of the three characters, Pierre’s emotional backbone crumbles first. Putting in a subtly powerful performance as a man who hasn’t taken time to fully comprehend the magnitude of the demand he’s made of his boss, Ciarán Owens hides Pierre’s rapidly-accelerating desperation beneath a collection of facial tics, clumsy attempts at humour, a sudden enthusiasm for his work as a jewellery designer and a penchant for tap-dancing his way through his wife’s private monthly visits to the cellar in an attempt to deny the bleak reality of his circumstances. 

In contrast to her husband’s growing agitation, Lisa Dillon’s Isabelle becomes increasingly unflappable as her longed-for pregnancy fails to materialise, her steely composure eventually becoming a weapon with which to punish Pierre. Meanwhile, as the stoically dignified Mister Haffmann, Nigel Lindsay offers a masterclass in withholding anguish, powerlessness, anger and deep, deep sadness, only really allowing his vulnerability an airing when he’s locked in his cellar cell – and only then going as far as putting his head in his hands for a quiet sob.

By the time we’re invited to that dinner party, Isabelle and Mister Haffmann have woven their own web of secrets, Pierre has discovered a dangerous route to achieving his finance-fuelled ambitions… and guess who’s coming to dinner? None other than Otto Abetz (the real-life German ambassador to Vichy France during the Second World War, latterly a convicted war criminal, played to the suave-but-sickeningly-sinister max by Alexander Hanson) and his vile, ill-mannered, obnoxious wife Suzanne (Josefina Gabrielle). 

Does Mister Haffmann cower in the cellar, quaking in fear? No; he pretends to be Pierre’s cousin. Is Pierre mortified that Mister Haffmann now knows who’s wives he’s selling necklaces to? No; he can justify his allegiances. As for Isabelle: she’s got her own big revelations to unleash on all of them. The situation becomes almost farcical and at times, elements of distinctly dark comedy temporarily lighten the ominous load – but still, nobody feels comfortable at Pierre and Isabelle’s kitchen table. 

We reach the denouement of this profoundly poignant, nerve-wracking tale, inspired by the real-life story of Daguerre’s grandparents, in a scene that also serves to showcase the immaculate production values behind a subtly powerful drama that explores the lengths people go to in order to survive, the breadth of the meaning of love and the depths that ‘humanity’ is capable of plundering to in the name of power and domination.

Ustinov Studio until 23 September
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