Bach & Sons review – study of the man and his music hits a flat note

Bridge theatre, London
Simon Russell Beale stars in a visually impressive production of Nina Raine’s play that never quite gets off the ground

It 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.

Simon Russell Beale in Bach and Sons.
In his shadow ... Simon Russell Beale in Bach & Sons. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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”, he says, 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.

Pravessh Rana and Simon Russell Beale in Bach and Sons.
Camp and menacing ... Pravessh Rana and Simon Russell Beale in Bach & Sons. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Like Amadeus, this play also explores the nature of genius, but, 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.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in theatre: Bach & Sons; Out West – review
Simon Russell Beale is Bach to his fingertips in Nina Raine’s intermittently brilliant new play

Susannah Clapp

04, Jul, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
Two Ladies review – presidents’ wives turn to violence
Zoë Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitešić attempt to seize power at a summit meeting in Nancy Harris’s provocative play

Michael Billington

25, Sep, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Straight Line Crazy review – Ralph Fiennes enthrals as the man who shaped New York
Fiennes heads an electrifying cast in David Hare’s dynamic portrait of Robert Moses, an aggressive yet visionary urban planner who refused to back down

Mark Lawson

24, Mar, 2022 @12:01 AM

Article image
Beat the Devil review – righteous rage of David Hare's corona nightmare
In the return of live indoor theatre, Ralph Fiennes delivers the playwright’s fury at the government’s response to the virus – and his despair when he catches it himself

Arifa Akbar

30, Aug, 2020 @11:44 AM

Article image
Guys and Dolls review – Nicholas Hytner’s gamble pays off
This immersive production of the New York musical has a bold design, superb singing and chemistry between its stars

Arifa Akbar

15, Mar, 2023 @12:01 AM

Article image
Allelujah! review – Alan Bennett's hospital drama is full of quiet anger
Patients’ singalongs, Arlene Phillips’s choreography and Bennett’s stinging wit light up a state-of-the-nation play set on a geriatric ward

Michael Billington

18, Jul, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage review – a theatrical marvel
Nicholas Hytner brings a dazzling wizard’s touch to this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy tale

Arifa Akbar

08, Dec, 2021 @12:01 AM

Article image
Bridge theatre's Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr to open new venue in King's Cross
The 600-seat theatre, due to open in Facebook’s new offices in 2021, will be an adaptable auditorium in the mould of the Bridge

Chris Wiegand

08, May, 2019 @12:45 PM

Article image
Julius Caesar review – Hytner delivers a visceral, politically urgent tragedy
Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey star in Nicholas Hytner’s promenade production, which shows putative dictators can be populists

Michael Billington

30, Jan, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
A Midsummer Night's Dream review – join the fiesta with Gwendoline Christie
Festive fun, ear-nibbling and high-wire antics infuse Nicholas Hytner’s startling role-reversal production

Michael Billington

11, Jun, 2019 @9:00 PM