Mahler's Conversion

Thursday, 11 October, 2001
Review by: 
Darren Dalglish

Ronald Harwood’s new play concerning the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler is a shallow affair with little, if any substance.

The author explores the tormented composer’s conversion from Judaism to Catholicism very weakly. We are told that Mahler’s decision was for purely opportunist reasons, mainly to secure the job of director of the Court Opera in Vienna, for which only Catholics could apply! However, the lack of any character/s to try and persuade him not to convert leaves us with no effective drama. He abandons Judaism with little resistance from his own conscience or from closest friends. There is some debate but it contains very little drama! In fact the drama comes in the second act in short swift scenes outlining the composers problems in marriage, with infidelities and with his impotence! But this also adds to the shallowness of the play, as we are not fully conversed on any reasons or underlying causes to these problems.

I believe the play would have been more dramatic if it had been cut from two hours to about one and a half hours and the script explored Mahler’s thoughts about the consequences of his conversion. It is only near the end of the play that Mahler questions whether the problems he now experiences are punishments for abandoning Judaism. Why this fear towards the end of his life? Did he ultimately believe in God? Did his Jewish culture matter to him? Or maybe he was beginning to regret converting to further his career? His conversation with Sigmund Freud near the end of the play was also disappointing, even though the exchange between them was amusing!

Anthony Sher is a solid and convincing ‘Mahler’ and Nicholas Cage is competent as Mahler’s friend, Siegfried Lipiner. And there is a delightful performance from Gary Waldhorn as ‘Sigmund Freud’ and particularly as ‘Father Swider’. But generally theirs and the other characters are like the script, unsubstantial!!

Ronald Harwood’s new play has not been well received by the popular press…. BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “Ronald Harwood's incomplete portrait of the composer leaves some unconvinced.” CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “The writing is flat and clumsy; the exposition creaks like a warped door with rusty hinges; the supporting characters, and even Mahler himself, stubbornly refuse to come to life. Above all, there is no real need for this play to take place in a theatre.” PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says,” Gregory Doran achieves a swirling production almost more suited to an epic rather than a play which remains obstinately domestic..” MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “Even if it is a disappointing … it gives Antony Sher the chance to add to his gallery of tortured artists. His Mahler is plausibly arrogant, egotistical, driven and nail biting.” SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE OBSERVER says, “Ronald Harwood's dreadful new play makes about every mistake it's possible to commit in the prone-to-cliché process of dramatising a musician's life.” PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, “As Mahler, Antony Sher begins as a cartoon of the genius played as frustrated force of nature and ends as a caricature of the genius as a lonely, broken and emasculated titan.” NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THER EVENING STANDARD says, “The play itself is a plodding chronicle piece in about 12 scenes. Its tone is suspect….” MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, “The idea runs ahead of a muddled and deeply unsatisfactory evening, fleshed out with musical extracts (not enough, alas) and a characteristically fraught 'outsider' performance from Sir Antony.” SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "Like in so many other plays, Harwood wonders how a great artist can be such an appalling human being, but this time it's hard to care. Despite Antony Sher's mesmeric performance, we are given little reason to care."

This subject has the potential is be something great, but sadly this play does not do it justice. It is not a bad play, there are some interesting and thought provoking moments, but you do come away feeling you have only had snippets of Mahler


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