On Theatre

Russell Beale on song as Bach

How the paternal gorgon finally attracts our empathy, waging a last intellectual battle

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Edging out of the pandemic, with steep loans to repay and nervous audiences to lure back to the lost habits of cramming into an auditorium to guffaw and applaud, the Bridge Theatre is one of the newer commercial theatres competing for premier league talent strong enough to carry a production through an unpredictable summer on a long run.

Russell Beale plays arrogant, lonely conflicted characters with relish and a secret sauce of incredulity

On cue here comes Simon Russell Beale, a “he shoots, he scores” bankable performer who is one of the transfers to the Bridge lured by Nick Hytner and co-founder Nick Starr (to audible grinding of teeth at the National).

One of the limited number of actors who are stars mainly by virtue of their achievements on stage, rather than big-name interlopers from TV or film, Russell Beale plays arrogant, lonely conflicted characters with relish and a secret sauce of incredulity.

Thinking about the performances I have watched, his role as the poisonous, scheming sidekick Mosca in Volpone turns out to have been in 1995. Performances that remain memorable a quarter of a century on are a sign of membership of theatre’s premier cru echelon and his hit rate since has been consistent, including a brilliant reworking of Timon of Athens for the National and a quietly vulnerable Hamlet.

Crucially though, he can also make a lesser play survive contact with an audience — he is an actor who fully understands that when the words or plot don’t quite measure up or when a work has aged patchily, it’s his virtuoso job to carry it off regardless.

As the maniacal Roote in The Hothouse, an early Harold Pinter number, he breathed new life into a dystopian yarn which was prescient of psychiatric abuse, but overstuffed with references and subplots. Now in Bach and Sons, Nina Raine’s droll study of the composer’s family life and feuds, he has the opposite problem.

For this is a rich subject channelled into a story which sometimes feels like it is trying to chart the musical biographies too closely, only to spin off into free exploration of a life whose details are lost to posterity.

In fairness, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t leave biographers much leeway in his jottings and letters which reflect a calcified temperament and some grumpiness — meat and drink to an actor who relishes the quirks of a compulsive crosspatch.

Raine is an economical writer. Here she marches us briskly from the 1720s and Bach’s days as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Köthen (in today’s Saxony-Anhalt) where Leopold frequently insisted on performing as a violinist in the court orchestra, through quarrels over money and position and into more productive years in Leipzig.

Wisely, given the size of the fractious Bach family (six surviving children out of twenty from two wives), Raine focuses our attention on the impact of a purblind pater familias on two sons, Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin) and Carl (Samuel Blenkin), vying for his affection and musical approbation. Wilhelm is brilliant, wayward and ultimately drunk — a bon viveur with the neediness of an addict pulsing below his bonhomie; Carl is an etiolated, anxious beanpole, craving approbation and channeling his frustration into work.

Russell Beale is at home with musical discourse (he was Guildhall-trained before embracing acting). And just as well, since to put it politely, the script has some difficulty avoiding clunky metaphors: “F sharp can be G flat except it isn’t” might have come from one of the hapless rockers in This is Spinal Tap.

There are some echoes of Stoppardism in wayward metaphors and a structural ambition to combine differences of generations and voices in a way that mirrors Bach’s obsession with balancing opposites. In truth, skittering from comic to melancholy mode makes the result a bit giddy in the first half, but Russell Beale glides over flaws in a dense text (a skill he also exhibited in the brilliant but baggy Lehman Trilogy).

If the domestic sphere chez Bach looks hard-going, the second half sparkles as Carl escapes the grinding feedback sessions in Leipzig and moves to pursue his own composing ambition at the court of Frederick the Great.

As dreadful, fascinating Frederick, Pravessh Rana is a comic find, nailing the oddity of the weirdest of all the Prussian kings — a whimsical, camp, control freak, draining the energy of his court and (it is suggested here) driving the elderly Bach into fatal ill health with his demand for a genre-busting “Musical Offering” — a fiendish challenge set with chess-like rigour by the King.

We catch an insight into the jagged coastal shelf of genius

All of this, to Raine’s credit as a researcher, is historically solid, though we could have done with a bit more directorial and writing assistance to get us from Leipzig to the court in Sanssouci.

Artfully, Russell Beale changes gait and delivery, from a fat-but-vital figure to a stiff-shouldered, stout old man in a greasy wig, writing divine music while plainly weighed down by age and pain.

The paternal gorgon finally attracts our empathy as he wages a last intellectual battle of “learned counterpoint” with the claims of a freer, new music and a changing of the generations.

Courtesy of Russell Beale’s playful, thoughtful incarnation, we catch an insight into the jagged coastal shelf of genius — compelling, often repellent, and with an afterlife that never ends.

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