Ekt is tempting to compare Bach & Sons with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, as Nina Raine unpicks the difficult personality of another composer with genius in his veins who died, at least as it is portrayed here, with his musical light undimmed but as a failure in other ways.
The similarities end there. Raine presents a middle-aged Bach (Simon Russell Beale) with studiousness and teases out power battles between him and his sons Wilhelm (Douggie McMeekin) and Carl (Samuel Blenkin), but her research hangs heavily and leaves the drama often inert, speaking its ideas rather than enacting them.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it is a visual spectacle despite this. Vicki Mortimer’s set is little short of stunning and Jon Clark’s lighting evokes gorgeous, candlelit paintings. It is all the more frustrating that even this cannot lift the play off the ground.
Raine’s modern-day medical drama Tiger Country, streamed over lockdown last year, was filled with pace, emotion and human intrigue. The opposite is the case here. Her script tells us that the composer was obsessive and exacting in his art, believing his music to be channelled from divine source. As a man, he was argumentative with his employers, cold to his first wife, Maria Barbara (Pandora Colin), and a less than perfect father.
The first half feels static and filled with backstory – how Bach was orphaned as a child, how he stabbed a bassoonist and served time in prison, that he hailed from a long line of musicians. This exposition robs the opportunity for the human drama to come alive. And for a life that contained enormous losses – 10 of Bach’s 20 children died in infancy – these are reported rather than felt as tragedies in the play.
Bach’s musical theories are delivered in stagnant conversation. Composition is like “a trifle with layers of cream and jelly”, hy sê, and argues about counterpoint while Maria Barbara tells us, quizzically, that “F sharp can be G flat except it isn’t”.
The second half is stronger and Bach’s fractious relationship with Wilhelm and Carl gains depth. The composer’s intimidating meeting with Frederick the Great (Pravessh Rana, camp and menacing by turns) is faithfully rendered and contains some dread. But Bach’s death scene, however exquisitely captured by light and shade, left me dry-eyed.
Like Amadeus, this play also explores the nature of genius, maar, where Salieri’s jealous ruminations on God-given talent drives the plot and heightens the emotional intensity of Shaffer’s play, here it remains stuck in cool conversational exchanges.
Beale is stately and lugubrious, if not as irascible as Bach was reported to be, and he comes to emanate grief-soaked sadness and regret. The strongest performances are from Blenkin and McMeekin as the sons in awe of their genius father but cowed by the shadow of that genius and resentful of his flaws as a family man.
The times when the play feels most alive are when Bach’s music is performed in small but gorgeous excerpts from his fugues, cantatas and concertos, although they seem removed from the greater drama, and do not add to its emotional charge. Anna Magdalena (Racheal Ofori), the soprano who becomes his second wife, remains a nondescript figure but sings beautifully.
It is maddening to see all the signs of a powerful play folded inside a frustratingly flat one.