Yellow Canary - Manipulate 2023

16 03 2023

The Yellow Canary

- Misses out on giving an important topic an appropriate form of expression

Luisa Hahn 

Bringing together digital animation, personal storytelling, and recorded testimony The Yellow Canary narrates the journey of Jewish boy Bernard, who is forced to flee his Parisian home following the German Invasion of France in 1941 to avoid capture, deportation, and murder by the Nazis. Bernard, who is the uncle of performer and co-creator Tashi Gore, lends his real life story to the performance. Following the key events of his family’s journey from Paris to Southern France and across the border to Italy, it becomes evident again and again that their survival is dependent on chance and crucially, the help from strangers risking their own lives in order to protect Bernard and his parents.

Snippets from a recorded Skype conversation with Bernard, now a man in his late eighties, about his memories intersperse the narrative that is otherwise delivered by Gore and accompanied by Ross MacKay’s black and white digital illustrations. The story is introduced as a continuous thread through a yellow pet canary, who accompanied Bernard through the traumatic journey. Intended to provide comic relief and figure as a symbol of Bernard’s youth – caged away, oppressed by the circumstances of his persecution and the looming horrific murder of millions in Europe – the bird can also be read as a symbol of hope. As a talisman, it protects Bernard, who at the end of the war, like his yellow canary, will spread his wings and fly off, free at last. However, both symbolic and actual relationship of boy and bird are suddenly subverted when Gore reveals towards the end of the performance that in Bernard’s real life the canary had died early on during the family’s flight and never played the role the audience was made to believe.

There are some questions as to the motivation of changing the story in this way. It seems to emphasise the bird’s purpose to provide comedic relief (aggravated by a short but awkward interlude of Gore reading out bird jokes) and makes its suggested symbolic meanings feel forced. This is unfortunate because the story has enough strong characters – Bernard’s parents and those who played crucial roles in their survival: Italian soldiers, a greengrocer, and a priest. Exploring these more deeply could have added depth to the story and avoided confusion about the introduction and subsequent unravelling of the (fabricated) role of the bird.

While McKay’s animations are effective at times, especially when combining photographs of present locations with digital drawings of figures – ghosts – of the past, Gore’s performance largely lacks weight, failing to convey the true horrors of the life and death situations Bernard and his family endure. At one point, there is a brief and detached description of the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp and there is one moment when Gore, after a tense scene of the family’s narrow avoidance of capture, turns to the audience and asks: “Can you imagine?”.  It is choices like these that make the production feel uncomfortably detached from the actual terror of this period in a time that caused the murder of over six million Jews and further hundreds of thousands of others persecuted under the Nazi ideology.

The most powerful but too rare moments are when Bernard is given space to speak himself, including when he asks for a list to be read out that thanks all those people who helped him and his family to survive. Retelling the stories of both those who did and did not survive the Holocaust and Nazi persecution is an essential task to hold up their memories and to remind of how unlikely and dependent on the help of other people – often strangers, usually risking their own lives – survival was. Powerful performances of these stories can trigger a range of overwhelming emotions. They cause anger at those who perpetrated and helped the perpetrators. Anger, maybe, even at oneself, because who can truly say that they would have been amongst the few who risked and lost their own lives to save those of others?

Overall, The Yellow Canary presents a naïve engagement with complicated source material. To do it justice, such material needs to be handled with greater care, respect, and research which should centre on the voices of the survivors themselves or on more effective forms of physical or visual expression to convey the overwhelming sense of loss experienced in Europe at the time.