The biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach that informs Nina Raine’s new play is interesting. And a star turn from Simon Russell Beale as the musical great makes this play entertaining. But, despite director Nicholas Hytner’s valiant efforts to tell the story, the playwright’s ambitions become a problem.
Raine and Russell Beale – he really is fantastic – make sure we enjoy a character both angry and vulnerable, with a sharp tongue and quick wit. An obsession with “order in all things” and his religiosity show a complex character. All good stuff. But the contrasts in Bach’s temperament find a too-fast parallel in discussions of his work.
The debate about life and art is held, noisily, with his sons – Wilhelm and Carl – composers moving into a new era and men living in their father’s shadow. But it’s the former, rather than a family drama, that is focused on. These sons almost disappear in the discussion Raine wants to start. And the ideas aren’t new or elaborated on particularly well. It’s only the sincerity in the delivery of the argument, from Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin, that makes any of this interesting.
There is more Raine starts to investigate – the idea that a great artist doesn’t have to be a good man. It’s a notion that seems common sense to me but is increasingly debated, so input is welcome. Bach’s family suffers from his obsessions with telling the truth. His wives most of all. There are strong performances from Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as Mrs Bach 1 & 2. Raine has written fulsome roles that make these scenes more successful.
Raine tries to mix the high-flown ideas on art with down-to-earth comments (mostly about weight), but the efforts feel like a gesture. Saying one of Bach’s Passions was received like a “turd in a tureen” gets a laugh… but too briefly. Bach & Sons does build in power, there are moving moments with Russell Beale’s uncanny ability to show his character aging. But all the discussions of music and meaning, counterpoint and chaos, end up close to platitudes. The result is a piece that is disappointingly one note.
Until 11 September 2021
Photos by Manuel Harlan