There can be few more delightful places to experience a sunny matinee in London than the beautiful setting of the Bridge Theatre, with Tower Bridge majestically overlooking its front lawn, its wide public spaces inside and a degree (degree, mind) of social distancing in the auditorium. To be honest, I was expecting more, but it was one of those times when you must trust to double vaccinations and a good tight mask. Fortunately, all the other theatregoers abided by the mask instruction pretty much 100%, which was very reassuring.
Bach and Sons is a new play by Nina Raine and takes that redoubtable composer Johann Sebastian Bach and examines his family relationships, primarily with his two oldest sons, Wilhelm and Carl, his wife Maria Barbara, her sister and housekeeper Katharina, and soprano Anna, who steps into the breach on more than one occasion and in more than one way. The play concentrates heavily on Bach Senior’s conservatism both musically and in faith, which shows itself in his obsession with musical counterpoint – even though, as the years pass, this style loses relevance and becomes outmoded. Remember how our parents hated whatever constituted the popular music of our youth? It was ever thus.
The play is at its best when it explores the dynamic between Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann. Bach clearly favours his older son, which confuses and upsets the younger Carl, and it’s a rift that increases throughout their lives. Wilhelm has more natural talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it. Carl has a strong technical understanding of writing music but lacks the je ne sais quoi (or, I guess, in this case, Ich weiß nicht) to make his writing soar. But with application, he gains preferment from the rather sinister King Frederick the Great, whilst Wilhelm drinks himself into oblivion and Johann Sebastian slips down the greasy pole of recognition as he can’t stop being tetchy with important people. There is a reconciliation at the end though; and of course, today, the music of J S Bach is still everywhere in the classical music world, whereas you might have to look a bit harder to find the C P E Bach.
However, it is a rather slow and stodgy play and at times I had to fight to keep those eyes open. The music metaphors become rather heavy and laden, and occasionally you wonder if the whole thing isn’t straying into Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. From the moment you see all the characters together there’s never any doubt that Bach would go off with Anna sooner or later; and whilst that is a statement of historical fact, for the purposes of the play it might have been more effective if it came as a surprise. Overall, one gets the impression that the play is just rather light and on the shallow side. Deeper writing might have mined more drama out of the storyline; we need to feel more involved with the characters and not just bear witness to what goes on. The audience knows that time is passing throughout the course of the play, but it’s very hard to tell exactly how much, because for the first three-quarters of the play none of the characters ages at all; all we can do is find out how old brother Gottfried is, and then work it back. It’s only when you see Johann Sebastian shuffle on stage wearing an old cardie that you realise that he’s now officially old.
Grey piano keyboards are suspended over the stage like several swords of Damocles, and smaller stages roll in and out from the wings to suggest all the different locations of the story. I don’t know what was wrong with the moving platform that brought the Christmas Tree on stage; it sounded like it was being rolled over bubble wrap with all the popping noises it made; some WD40 needed there, I reckon. The “live” playing of the instruments works extremely well, with specially recorded sequences for the production. You’d never know that Bastian wasn’t actually playing that harpsichord or that C P E wasn’t wowing us with his Cello Concerto.
The cast is led by the safe pair of hands that is Simon Russell Beale as J S Bach, and he is perfectly cast for the role; he presents the composer as neither ogre nor caricature, but as a very believable portrayal of a sometime irascible and flawed man who sacrifices others’ happiness on the altar of his own favouritism. To be honest, this is easy pickings for Sir Simon; he could probably do this role with one hand tied behind his back (although perhaps not the harpsichord scenes). If the writing had been bolder, I’m sure he would have revealed more about the man. Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin are both excellent as brothers Carl and Wilhelm, realistically portraying both brotherly closeness and distant annoyance.
Pravessh Rana gives an unsettling performance as Frederick the Great, creepily giving vent to the character’s latent and predatory homosexuality, with conversations full of veiled threats which reminded me of John Hurt’s batty but terrifying Caligula in TV’s I Claudius. It is perhaps surprising that Nina Raine hasn’t made more of the female characters in the play, but Pandora Colin, Racheal Ofori and Ruth Lass make the most of what limited dramatic intensity the writing provides them. I was, however, impressively disturbed by the scene where Ms Ofori’s Anna dwells on the children she has lost as she walks around J S’s piano, obsessively drumming its surface with her fingers.
There are a few telling lines – I loved Bach’s description of one of his musicians as multi-talentless for example – and a few excellent scenes – Bach attending Frederick’s court and subjecting himself to the humiliation of the King’s mentally sadistic pleasure is one. I can’t help but feel though that this is not as good a play as it ought to be, but this is cunningly disguised by a highly competent and professional production. Excellent performances bring it to life to provide a very enjoyable two and a half hours!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan