THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The trouble with the bioplay about creative geniuses is that the act of creation itself is dull. It’s for the most part just a slog. In the ‘30s and '40s the Hollywood moguls, in an effort to give a patina of respectability to their commerce, produced a spate of biopics of the Great Composers. These ran the gamut from turgid to laughable, but they created a template for popular dramatic representations of genius ever since, and they were popular. They spread the idea of the “tortured genius” whereby the great man was vile or neglectful to all around him but Look at his Art. That genius-rat binary has been the ‘get out of jail free card’ for many a cultured rat ever since.
Of course, incredibly creative people are often self-absorbed, as they must be, but switching the focus to their domestic arrangements really doesn’t tell us anything useful about how or why they’ve achieved greatness.
Nina Raine’s humorous and deeply intelligent play counters this by giving us some elementary lessons in musicology, to go some way towards explaining what exactly distinguished Bach. It does clunk at times, but she pulls it off, because she leavens it with some real human drama. To illustrate her arguments the piece is packed with musical excerpts where Bach or the sons play or conduct to pre-recorded snippets, most of which are expertly abridged to fit the dramatic moment, with the music adapted by George Fenton.
Experts on Bach, and there is a mountain of scholarship on him, will no doubt scoff and sneer, but to what end? This isn’t a symposium, it’s a popular play, and at that level it succeeds, especially if your knowledge is scant, and that’s a good thing.
It works because the dialogue is modern and whip-smart and director Nicholas Hytner has given it weight by beautifully calibrating the furious family dynamics: the easy intimacies, gentle ribbing, fierce arguments and the taking people for granted.
Simon Russell Beale’s Bach is irascible and turbulent, bearing the emotional scars of being an orphan, yet he writes music of sensuous delight for his princely patrons, all the time claiming that his primary aim is to give voice to his deep religious faith. He tutors his sons with a scathing wit and entreats them only to “break the rules when you know them properly”. The part fits him like a glove and complements his (Beale’s) background as a chorister and music scholar and a maker of excellent classical music TV series.
The eldest son, Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin), is talented, chaotic and needy and totally paralysed by father’s genius, while the second son is the tense and industrious Carl who, in his father’s eyes is the less talented: “Talent can’t be willed or worked for,” he scowls at him. Carl becomes more successful and so more estranged - Samuel Blenkin is really affecting as a son desperate for an affirmation which never arrives.
Pandora Collin is touching too as the wry and supportive first wife Maria, while Rachel Ofori lends great presence to the underwritten part of Anna, the soprano who usurped the boys’ mother. Another standout, literally as he towers over everyone else is, Pravessh Rana, (straight out of LAMDA) who, draped in lush velvets, gives Frederick the Great a lot more charisma than he probably deserves.
Vicki Mortimer’s designs incorporate a beautiful piano sculpture suspended from the ceiling and as with Jon Clark’s lighting they are beautifully spare and apt.