Life & Culture

Theatre review: Bach & Sons

There is much to love about this musical drama


If there is such a thing as a dream team in theatre it might be a script by Nina Raine, a cast led by Simon Russell Beale, direction by Nicholas Hytner and music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Raine’s new play about the composer has shades of Peter Shaffer’s Mozart hit Amadeus. Where Mozart’s physical deterioration leads to his Requiem, Bach’s results in his Passion of St John, and where Mozart had to suffer the royal ignorance of Joseph II, Bach has to humour the arrogance of Frederick the Great (a pathologically imperious Pravessh Rana).

But there is also something here of Raine’s 2010 play Tribes which featured an argumentative (Jewish) family with an intimidating patriarch whose authority the children — here Bach’s musician sons Wilhelm and Carl — undermine with banter and respectful insolence.

The wardrobe is entirely eighteenth century but the language belongs utterly to the twenty first, with the wittily crude dialogue of Russell Beale’s impatient Bach — “why else do you think I’m working my hairy little tits off?”— serving as counterpoint to the heavenly music that flows from his mind.

Counterpoint is a constant presence here, not just in the unspeakably beautiful strains running through Hytner’s impeccably directed and simply staged production, but in heated argument about the form’s musical merits.

“The whole point is to construct two complementary and contrasting thoughts in the same moment,” insists Bach to his sons, who think the technique old-fashioned. It’s a theme repeatedly explored, and presented as a metaphor for life. And when Emperor Frederick challenges Bach on whether every melody can be made the subject of counterpoint, the summoned and by now world-weary composer replies that it can, “just as everyone can be the subject of love.” By now the sons have reached their life’s destiny; Wilhelm, the most favoured and talented is a tragic drunk, and the more ambitious Carl now one of the emperor’s court musicians. Meanwhile Bach’s to us unfathomably undervalued canon is composed against the background of more infant deaths from his two marriages (Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori) than can be counted on one hand.

It all combines to form a deeply rewarding evening with music expertly woven through family drama. The violin chaconne written by Bach while grieving is simply devastating. And it is all the more revealing considering the emotional detachment with which Russell Beale’s Bach treats those closest to him — yet another counterpoint, this time to the passion with which he composed.

However Raine’s play doesn’t quite exert the dramatic grip of Shaffer’s which had — and apparently exaggerated — the murderous jealousy of Salieri. If Raine was ever tempted to cast in that role Bach’s bitterly resentful son Carl (Samuel Blenkin), who craves the approval of his father, then you can see why she decided against.

In form, and this is a play if anything about musical form, it would be far too close to Amadeus.

But when Carl’s brother Wilhelm (here a very convincing alcoholic intelligence played by Douggie McMeekin) accuses his sibling of thieving their father’s music you do wonder if perhaps there was room on Raine’s stave for a bit more plot.


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