Simon Russell Beale shines in 'Bach & Sons' at the Bridge Theatre
When the family business is music, and your father happens to be a genius, are you destined for glittering achievement – or a life underscored by inadequacy? That’s a recurring motif in this new play by Nina Raine, who, as the daughter of poet Craig Raine, knows a thing or two about living with a celebrated patriarch. It's a piece about creativity and commerce, about the difficulty of balancing artistic integrity with economic survival. It’s also about the eternal emotional haggling in a household where talent is regarded not only as gift from God, but where it also, more mundanely, pays the bills. What is sacrificed, when art is all – and at what cost?
In her drama about Johann Sebastian Bach, his two wives and two of his sons, Raine lays out her ideas with the mathematical precision of one of the composer’s fugues. Nicholas Hytner’s production responds with elegance, and with a lead performance, from Simon Russell Beale, that is both nimble and finely gauged. It is intelligent, graceful, and rather too neat: as "well-tempered," you might say, as the clavier that takes centre stage.
That tinkling instrument, on Vicki Mortimer’s gliding set, perches on a geometrically patterned floor. Above, more harpsichords are arranged, at chromatic angles, in a spiky canopy; Jon Clark’s lighting imparts a tenebrous, painterly, candlelit glow. We are, for much of the action, at home with the Bachs, where JS’s painstaking, repetitive reworking of melodic figures keeps his children awake at night, and where by day he insists on giving his entire family a rigorous musical education.
Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin), the elder son, shows most promise, but stubbornly refuses to apply himself – partly because he’s stymied by his father’s formidable brilliance. His younger sibling, Carl (Samuel Blenkin) tries hard, but Bach is cruelly dismissive of his efforts. His wife, Barbara (Pandora Colin), manages the domestic side of the Bach family enterprise and tries to mitigate the effects of her husband’s irascibility, which has the potential to sabotage him personally and professionally.
Harmony and discord, major and minor: the play’s shifting moods and themes are presented in counterpoint, complemented by George Fenton’s selection of interludes from Bach’s music. The manipulation of metaphor is adroit: there’s discussion of how, in a fugue, each musical line must have its individual, unique voice, an echo of the struggle of Bach’s sons to find their own niche in life, their own melody. And there are repeated mirrorings and variations: just as Carl and Wilhelm make a not-quite-matching pair, so too do Barbara and her melancholy sister, Katharina (Ruth Lass); while Anna (Racheal Ofori), a soprano with whom Bach is having an insultingly indiscreet affair, adds an uneasy, dissonant note to their domesticity, before becoming absorbed into it after Barbara’s death.
The execution has refinement, but the musical lectures can be dry, and there are sequences, too, that rely on over-deliberate exposition to fill in biographical or historical detail. Moments when the production’s smooth surface is broken help maintain our interest – Pravessh Rana as a sadistic Frederick the Great, humiliating Bach at Court; or the anguish of Lass’s Katharina, drained by successive pregnancies and the deaths of her babies. Only 10 of Bach’s fabled 20 children survived into adulthood, and loss and grief are a continuous background hum, as is Bach’s own legacy, both as scion of a family that had already produced noted musical talents, and as an orphan with an ambivalent attitude to intimacy and tenderness.
Beale handles the writing’s intricacy with dexterity, casually inflicting pain, balancing the character’s wit and warmth, prickly pride and vulnerability. Yet the explosive emotional pay-off we’re waiting for never quite arrives. This is an interesting play, and a clever one. But it’s a little too measured to quicken the pulse.
Photo credit: Bach & Sons (Photo by Manuel Harlan)