Bridge Theatre, London – until 11 September 2021
This night saw one famous victory as England kicked through to the next round. Indeed the Bridge theatre press night audience was a bit banjaxed by emerging to the shouts of crowds at the UEFA fanzone by the river. Not often do you emerge tearfully from Johann Sebastian Bach’s deathbed and Simon Russell Beale’s beaming curtain call to such inharmonious howling. So well done England, but even more well done – brilliantly done, gloriously done, back of the net! – to the writer Nina Raine and all the cast under Nicholas Hytner’s sure direction at the Bridge.
Last time I was there was to see Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge, just before the government panicked again and closed everything. This time the great SRB reappears as Johann Sebastian Bach, whose immense irascible genius he contains, channels and gives us back to us two centuries on. We were safely alongside him all the way from the opening moments, as he irritably plinked out the first notes of ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ while poor pregnant Maria, worried about their ailing three-year-old and big untidy sons, tried to urge him back to bed.
This Bach is all quarrelsome warmth and freelance insecurity, family neglectfulness and devotion and perfectionism. The canon and counterpoint and conversation he expresses in music reflects in his life: he’s bawdy and holy, sensual and perfectionist, loving and grumpy. No fault gets past him except his own, and which of us can claim otherwise? “He’s multi-talentless” he snarls of an oboist who plays the flute badly. And “You – bass – you’re too fat to sing! I know. I’m fat. I don’t have to sing.”
He writes every note to the glory of God, with a sincerity rarely acknowledged by modern playwrights; he wants to express “Hope filled with pain, laughter with irritation.” But he also loves women, and jigs. Indeed he briefly dances one during a rumbustious, domineering family music lesson. At which moment we love him totally, but then – joining in this resentment with his infuriated sons – sigh at him, for refusing to dance with his poor wife and being way too keen on rehearsing with Anna the soprano. He is any of us, only more so. Our luck is that Russell Beale is both a musician, an ex-chorister steeped in Bach from childhood, and at the same time one of the small cadre of actors who can encapsulate such exhilarating subtleties of character and behaviour.
The staging is simple: bare but domestic, sliding platforms creating sometimes his solitary work, sometimes children’s bunk-beds, sometimes (with chandeliers) the glittering threat of Frederick the Great’s nasty court. The play is is cleverly built, set over many years which echo the returning, changing, intermingling qualities of the canons and counterpoint he demonstrates to his children in the early scenes. These lessons are as funny and banteringly combative as any domestic sitcom, despite our underlying awareness of the many, many infant and newborn deaths, and the gruelling pregnancies of his two successive wives (20 between them).
As the children grow up and Bach grows old it darkens; by then we are deeply engaged with them all and noticing the returning deepening themes of life’s counterpoint and discords. Big laughing Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin) who stole the brandy and was hailed by his father as the greater talent, ends up a broke dependent drunk. Carl Philipp, a weasel-neat Samuel Blenkin, is the hard worker who the father doesn’t rate as highly, but who becomes a bewigged, nervy musician in the court of the dreadful Frederick the Great (Pravessh Rana, who now must be everybody’s go-to for emotionally damaged bullies). They’re all tremendous, not a note wrong, complete, the relationships confused but clear. The love between the two very different elder brothers is unexpectedly deeply moving.
As for the women, Pandora Colin as Maria and Ruth Lass as her sister who stays devoted to the family and its patriarch, they are far more than nurses and handmaids and background-females: each is elegantly drawn and distinct in personality, visibly knowing old Bach better than he knows himself. Rachel Ofori as the soprano Anna, Bach’s second wife and thirteen times pregnant, expresses the terrible pathos of losing infant children one after another, and the redemptive role of a woman finally trying to balance the blind old genius and the two sons in his shadow .
It is a lovely play: domestic and intellectual, dryly wise and recklessly passionate. It harmonizes the bawdy and the holy , the loving and the lyrical. It lays out before us both a long-vanished world and the timeless conundrum of human relationships. There is sometimes music, mostly recorded, from Voces8 and the SDG Ensemble, and it crashes around us in the theatre’s fine acoustic. But it is the music of its humanity which echoes long afterwards.
box office bridgetheatre.co.uk to 11 September