BACH & SONS
by Nina Raine
directed by Nicholas Hytner
Bridge Theatre – until 11 September
Music is a potent life force, a non-verbal language capable of cutting right to the heart of an emotion or memory. Nina Raine’s richly engrossing new play also suggests that music can be weaponised, especially by those in thrall to, or in control of, its transcendent power while blithely unaware of the effect of their own behaviour on apparently lesser mortals, even when those mortals are in fact their closest family members.
What makes Simon Russell Beale’s blunt-headed, plain-speaking Johann Sebastian Bach such compelling company, beyond the unquestionable magnetism of the actor himself of course, is the disconnect between the man’s delicately beautiful creations (there is a lot of music in this production, it’s almost like an extra character) and the casual, if frequently oblivious, cruelties meted out to his nearest and dearest, and the brutal (but hilarious) way he dismisses musical artists he deems inferior. It’s a superb portrayal, often fascinatingly restrained where a lesser actor might be tempted to go for broke, and the physical deterioration depicted as Bach ages is meticulously done.
The play centres on Bach’s contrasting relationships with his two elder sons, both of whom are also musically gifted. First there’s Samuel Blenkin’s Carl, eager to please, slight and neurotic. Carl’s a grafter, desperate to earn his father’s approval yet not possessing the divine spark of artistic inspiration that would ignite the bonfire of paternal approbation. Then there’s the favoured son, Douggie McMeekin’s charming wastrel Wilhelm, a sentimental man-boy with all the talent but none of the drive, happy to drink his life and talent away, while being constantly financially bailed out by Daddy. It’s an interesting dynamic, made more complex by the fact that the two brothers clearly adore each other.
Throw into the mix a long suffering but adored wife (Pandora Colin, magnificent), an illicit affair with a beloved soprano (a luminous Racheal Ofori) who becomes the next wife, and an all-seeing, emotionally stunted sister-in-law, hauntingly rendered by Ruth Lass, who carries an endless torch for the composer, and you have something as compulsive as an upmarket soap opera, but in beautiful period frocks.
Raine’s text gleefully mixes anachronistic language with the period setting, and in Pradesh Rana’s quirky, hilarious Frederick The Great, flamboyantly sardonic but irreparably damaged by the unfeelingness with which his forbidden (and only true) love was cut adrift by his late father, throws up one genuinely unexpected and fascinating character.
The production values in Nicholas Hytner’s immaculate, if slightly long-winded, staging are ravishing: elegant set by Vicki Mortimer, costumes by Khadija Raza and wonderfully moody lighting by Jon Clark. Indeed, this is very much the sort of thing one would have expected to see on one of the main stages at the National during Hytner’s tenure as artistic director there. It’s Rolls Royce theatre although it may be lacking in edge for some people. It actually made me go home and listen to Bach. I wasn’t expecting that!