Bach & Sons by Nina Raine – Bridge Theatre, London
The Bridge Theatre has secured the services of Simon Russell-Beale during the pandemic, first in A Christmas Carol and now Nina Raine’s new play about the Bach family. He is probably the most reassuring actor on the British stage at the moment, absolutely guaranteed to deliver nuanced, absorbing performances in whatever he turns his hand to. Things are still the same, at least to some extent, when S R-B is in action. Raine’s play is watchable too and an interesting attempt to create family drama and wider meaning from the peculiar dynamics of this composing dynasty. However, it does suffer from the weight of history it carries. Historical plays are tough to write, with the need to inform the audience about sequences of unfamiliar events always threatening to unbalance the action. Although Raine is always stripping her dialogue back to essential, Bach & Sons does sometimes feel like a history lesson first and foremost.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in the performances of a strong ensemble. Russell Beale is charming and funny but also stubborn and curmudgeonly, in a thoroughly believable turn as the paterfamilias Johann Sebastian Bach. His family are a bunch of contrasting characters, defined the different ways in which they fail to deal with the pressure of his genius. Oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann (Douggie McKeekin) is clumsy and affectionate, but an emotional disaster zone. His brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel is a politician, but equally desperate for the approval his father will never give. Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, is beautifully played by Pandora Colin as the only person who can hold everyone together. Her successor, Anna Magdalena (Rachael Ofori) starts as a young upstart and ends up worn down by domestic pressures.
The play has some very moving scenes, including those that deal with the horrifying infant mortality that affected the family, as it did most 18th century families. The toll taken by the death of young children is delicately explored. A stand-out moment comes when Bach plays a simple melody, and the dead Maria appears to dance to it with him. The use of music in the play has to be good, and it is. The inability of the harpsichord to express emotion, unlike the new-fangled pianoforte, becomes the defining characteristic for Bach as well as his music. It is impossible to tell when Russell-Beale is and is not playing live, but he certainly gives a very good account of himself at the keyboard. A mention must also go to Pravessh Rana’s unnerving performance as Frederick the Great, a convincing portrayal of a man who inhabits an entirely different world to everyone else on stage.