There are often good grounds to be wary of plays centred on the lives of historical figures. The balance between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ is notoriously hard to bring off. Unless the play can achieve an independent dramatic vigour of its own you are left asking what is there that could not be communicated just as well through an illustrated lecture. We need the characters to come to life to suspend our knowledge of what is to come. For example, Shaffer managed it famously in ‘Amadeus’, but Tom Stoppard was less successful in ‘The Coast of Utopia.’ It is the great strength of Nina Raine’s new play at the Bridge Theatre that she has faced down the challenge and found a way of animating the lives of JS Bach and his family that uses inter-generational conflict to open up real insights into his music as well.
Raine focuses on the story of Bach’s marriages and relationship with his two elder sons, both musicians too. She explores the paradox whereby Bach’s music sought and found a serene endorsement of Protestant faith alongside a pattern of personal abrasiveness, intolerance of authority, and studied neglect of his family’s feelings and aspirations. While he may have seen his formal concern with the different voices of musical counterpoint as a way of reconciling conflicting emotions, in his personal life he largely created and inflamed conflict.
The key clashes are superbly etched by the leading players. Simon Russell Beale is no mean musician himself and easily inhabits the composer’s musical paradigm. But he also, perhaps surprisingly, generates a good measure of meanness and selfishness that give energy to his exchanges with his sons, especially Carl, a role played with fire and grace by Samuel Blenkin. Though less talented than both his father and brother, Carl finds success in his career with a very different set of musical aspirations, and a contrasting pattern of behaviour. It is crucial to the play that these perspectives seem equally plausible, so that we can think of music for pleasure rather than worship and that personal relationships need not be the casualty of devotion to art. Douggie McMeekin, as the other brother Wilhelm, shows another way, a retreat into drink and self-neglect in reaction to his father’s expectations, which gives us cause to reflect on the collateral cost of genius. The same can be said of the three women in the play: Pandora Colin and Rachael Ofori as the two contrasted but equally spirited wives fight their corners powerfully, and Ruth Lass, as the much put-upon poor relation Katharina, paints a wan portrait of neglected love. Praveesh Rana rounds off the cast with a humorous portrait of king Frederick of Prussia, both seeking the flattery of his modest musical talent but also seeing through it the connections between music, patronage, and power.
In a play where music is front and centre, it is obviously important that the musical examples work to good effect. George Fenton ensures that the pre-recorded extracts of instrumental and vocal music make their points tellingly and with the economy, coming to a head in Bach’s enforced improvisations at the court of Frederick the Great, which became what we know as ‘The Musical Offering.’ This is the high point of the evening musically and where the dramatic threads mesh most tightly. The only area that seems slightly under-developed is Bach’s prowess as an organist, something difficult to illustrate outside a church setting.
Director Nick Hytner has great experience in bringing history to dramatic life, not least through his work with Alan Bennett. He and designer Vicki Mortimer ensure that there is always a lot going on visually to balance the focus on music and text. In what could be a very static production, two sets alternate on the thrust stage, one focused around Bach’s harpsichord and score-stuffed study, with the other representing other rooms in the house or indeed Frederick’s court. Each tableau is well lined with a scatter of props to provide authenticity and the period costumes underline the contrast between domestic and public roles. Many of the conversations take place at night and a subtle lighting scheme from Jon Clark ensures an exquisite painterly dialogue of light and shadow.
This play is both thought-provoking about deep, complex matters and emotionally satisfying as a family drama. While the run at The Bridge is short let us hope a West End run may be possible in due course.
- Playwright; Nina Raine
- Director: Nicholas Hytner
- Leading Performers: Simon Russell Beale, Samuel Blenkin, Pandora Colin, Ruth Lass, Douggie McMeekin, Rachael Ofori, Pravessh Rana
- Venue: Bridge Theatre
- Until: 11th September 2021
- Duration: 2 hrs 30 mins, with interval