Friday February 23, 2024
Lotte's Gift
Review

Lotte's Gift

February 6 2007

David Williamson wrote and directed the first incarnation of Lotte's Gift - then titled Strings Beneath My Fingers - for the 2006 Noosalongweekend. It was a raging success for Williamson and his star, the classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, and thus came to the attention of producer Christine Dunstan and the Ensemble Theatre's Sandra Bates.

Now, with input from both women, rewriting and refining from the playwright and astonishing dedication to expanding her acting skills from the performer, the rough(ish) diamond is now a cut, polished and multifaceted entertainment that defies easy pigeonholing.

Lotte's Gift is the story of three generations of women: Karin Schaupp, her mother Isolde and Isolde's mother, Lieselotte (Lotte) Reinke. Isolde's younger sister Trudi should also be included because if she and her husband had not fallen in love with Australia in the 1970s and emigrated, the rest of her family would not have made the one-way trip to sunny Brisbane.

In a performance that has become tangibly more assured and is often quite seamless, Karin Schaupp switches between herself and her formidable grandmother in an evening of storytelling that highlights the universality of women's experience. Lotte was born and brought up in a small German town, but her thwarted dreams (she was an exceptional soprano who could have had a considerable career), her domineering husband and his doting mother are instantly recognisable in anecdotes and vignettes which range from comical to poignant to tragic.

Williamson has taken Lotte's memoirs and reminiscences of life in pre-war, wartime and post-war provincial Germany and intertwined with these strands a unifying thread of music: her own talent as a soprano, and her grand-daughter's as a classical guitarist. Punctuating this story are variations on a refrain which recur throughout and would be all too familiar to women who have lived through hard times and disappointments:

"We just had to make the best of it," she remarks of the privations and horrors of war. Then, when husband Heinrich vetoes a contract that would probably have made his wife a rich woman and a superstar soprano: "Life never gives you everything."

Also seemingly typical of her class and generation is Lotte's reaction to the discovery of her husband's four year affair with a local woman. Bristling and rising like an enraged bantam hen, she hisses that the mistress had actually been crass enough to accept invitations "to eat at my table. More than once."

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If Lotte's soaring self belief and indomitable spirit were not also laced with wry humour and humility, she would be as monstrous as "the witch of a mother-in-law" she loathed but nevertheless cared for and put up with until the old lady's death at 101. (Appalled and amused gasps from the audience at this point.) As it is, between them, the playwright and Lotte's loving grand-daughter have fashioned a multidimensional and charming character out of a life that - in lesser hands - could easily have slipped into bathos or cruelty, or both.

Lotte's Gift

Some of the leavening and balance in the story come from the woman between the grandmother and grand-daughter - Isolde - almost invisible at times between the overwhelming history of the old woman on one side and the rising dazzle of the young woman on the other. Isolde, the shy but brilliant musician and dutiful daughter, is yet another unsung heroine of the kind that most women know. The footage of her and young Karin - the plump little hands plucking away at the guitar string watched over by her mother - is among the most touching moments in the play.

And punctuating the action of the play is music: Brahms, Villa-Lobos, Albeniz, Rodrigo, Pujol and so on. Karin Schaupp is one of the best classical guitarists Australia has produced (well, Isolde really). As well as the dramatic focus of the Saffire quartet, Schaupp is in demand as a soloist too and it's this element that makes Lotte's Gift such an unusual entertainment. It's not a musical yet it's full of music; it's full of drama, yet it's simple storytelling of the kind that enthrals most people. And although it's carefully constructed and crafted, it's also true and has all the fascination of biography - which is so often much stranger than fiction.

The set, by Graham Maclean, is a story in itself: a comfortable and typical Aussie living room of Federation style overlaid with European touches in the pictures, ornaments and decorations. Lighting by Michele Preshaw underlines the changes of pace and character without making any great fuss or drawing attention from the real action: the three women whose lives are such an engaging Australian story.

Lotte's Gift, Ensemble Theatre to March 10, then Theatre Royal, March 21-24 (02 9929 0644 or www.ensemble.com.au); Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 18-May 5 (07 3007 8600 or www.roundhousetheatre.com.au); Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, May 24-27 (02 4226 3699 or www.merringong.com.au). Further regional and interstate tour venues info from Christine Dunstan Productions (02 4464 1718 or www.cdp.com.au).

Lotte's Gift - the music, played by Karin Schaupp, now available on ABC Classics, $29.95.

You can hear an interview with David Williamson and Karin Schaupp in the most recent episode of StageCast.

 

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