AT THE Bridge Theatre, Simon Russell Beale is playing a role that he seems to have been born to play. In Bach and Sons, Johann Sebastian Bach is a complicated figure. His son tells him: “You might be a great musician, but you are a horrible human being.”
Is it interesting? Fascinating. And the music? Gorgeous. The performances? Outstanding. And a great play? Oh dear! Sadly not.
An enormous amount of research has gone into Nina Raine’s writing, but it hangs so heavily that the play only fitfully sparks into theatrical life. The first half is dense with explanations of how Bach’s music works: how to build a fugue, what makes counterpoint compelling. It’s the stuff of a fine lecture struggling to find any dramatic tension. The middle-aged Bach is teaching his sons Carl (a workmanlike musician desperate for his father’s approval, beautifully played by Samuel Blenkin) and Wilhelm (sluicing away both his unhappiness and his talent with drink, Douggie McMeekin). We hear his back story, mostly conveyed by people telling one another things that they must already know.
From this static beginning, the play does begin to accelerate as we become aware of Bach’s inability to demonstrate love to his family in any other way than by writing music. The second half is more invigorating, as the relationships grow fractious. There are touching moments, as when Bach dances with the ghost of his wife, Maria (Pandora Colin), in a way that he never could when she was alive.
The tragedy that gives a glimpse into his soul, the death of ten of his children in infancy, is reported rather than played out. It is his second wife (Racheal Ofori) who has the play’s most moving speech about the sheer exhaustion of worrying whether each child will live.
There is much talk about God, and that is where most of the play’s interest lies. It is God who is the meaning and the motive of all the music that pours out of Johann Sebastian. It’s the play’s discussion of the cruelty of God that is most intriguing. “The tougher he is with you, the more he loves you,” Bach says in what seems like self-justification. As an old man, he is asked whether he has faith: “I have doubt. It feels like the same thing.”
Although this is not a gripping evening, there is much to enjoy. It’s funny. (There is an oboe player who is “multi-talentless”.) The designer, Vicki Mortimer, has set it under a spectacular cascade of harpsichords. The director, Nicholas Hytner, draws a compelling performance out of Simon Russell Beale, devout and disagreeable at the same time. And the music soars. But perhaps the biggest joy is seeing as many as eight actors on a stage telling a story, and hearing the sweet sound of an audience who, after 15 months of deprivation, are longing to applaud.
Bach and Sons continues at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1, until 11 September. Tickets from www.bridgetheatre.co.uk or 0333 320 0051.