There were times last autumn when most of the theatre showing in London – probably most of the theatre showing in the UK – was showing at the Bridge Theatre. It courageously ran a diverse season of monologues at a time when most other venues were (understandably) nervous about putting a single show on. It even snuck a fine version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ starring Simon Russell Beale into that five-minute window when the theatres opened before Christmas, with a programme of late-night comedy and cabaret programmed around it. It led the way.
We’re not clear of the pandemic yet. But Nina Raine’s ‘Bach & Sons’ reopens Nicholas Hytner’s venue to a transformed theatre scene… and the Bridge has gone back to being kind of on the MOR side. (Fun fact: it’s the first play with an interval I’ve seen since March 2020!).
Once again starring Russell Beale, Raine’s play concerns the great eighteenth-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and his complicated family. Flippant and funny in its sweary modern English text, it is, nonetheless, clearly borne of meticulous research into the lives of Bach, his sons, his wives and more. Her Bach is a cranky perfectionist whose prodigious output comes laden with a refusal to compromise his work’s inherent complexity – he believes he is ultimately making it for God, not for his patrons – and a tendency to pick arguments with basically everyone.
The ‘sons’ bit of the title most literally applies to Carl and Wilhelm, Bach’s two eldest children, and the difficult relationship between them and their father. Samuel Blenkin plays Carl as a high-strung do-gooder, frequently appalled by his father’s behaviour but still desperate for his approval; Douggie McMeekin’s lovably oafish Wilhelm is favoured by his father but overwhelmed by the pressure, growing up a boozy mediocrity.
But as Raine makes clear, they were not Bach’s only children: perhaps the most powerful aspect of her play is the sense it gives of the agony of an age in which childhood life expectancy was so low, and a woman’s role was deemed to involve churning out as many children as possible. Bach had two wives: Barbara (who died in her mid-thirties) and Anna. They’re portrayed by Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as intelligent, compassionate women whose lives were defined by the physically and emotionally ravages of giving birth to endless children: 20 in total, half of whom died in infancy. There is a painful background throb to Nicholas Hytner’s production, the constant buzz of death.
And yet it never really comes together as a great play. If it’s essentially about Bach’s relationship with his two sons and two wives, then iwe learn far more about what they feel about him than him about them. Not that Bach Snr is uninteresting. But for all his fascinating idiosyncrasies – his strange mix of zealotry and irreverence – he feels like a distant figure, who ploughs his own furrow. It’s not that he doesn’t feel things. But he doesn’t really change, or learn anything. It’s really a play about how others are forced to react to him, and despite Russell Beale’s cranky charisma, it’s not really the sort of big, chewy, emotional role that he can really drill down into.
There is a really weird, great turn from Pravessh Rana as a menacingly camp Frederick the Great, who Carl comes to work for. When Bach Snr visits his court, the Prussian monarch merciless tests the elderly man’s powers of composition: there is something electrifying about this confrontation that feels like it could have powered a whole play. Certainly it’s hard to escape the shadow of Peter Shaffer’s peerless ‘Amadeus’, which conveyed Mozart’s idiosyncratic brilliance by focussing it through a tragic rivalry with a single person, Salieri. ‘Bach & Sons’ is much more diffuse, and kind of drifts interestingly through Bach’s later life without ever finding a thrilling dramatic form.
The Bridge no longer feels like the heroic lone voice of an underground resistance, and really that’s probably a good thing in general terms. But ‘Bach & Sons’ is entertaining stuff, made with care, and if the drama is on the cosy side, it’s worth saying the music always thrills, melodic razors of harpsichord, slashing thrilling patterns through the air.