Bach and Sons is a new play by renowned playwright Nina Raine about composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s later years and his complicated and tragic family life.
On a thrust stage, Vicki Mortimer has created a stunning environment. Multiple pianos in muted tones are suspended from the ceiling – a modern contrast to a sparsely decorated set with antiquarian bottles, crates and, of course, a harpsichord. Simon Russell Beale portrays Bach who is a cantankerous fellow; obsessive about his piano and the rules of music. Raine’s script allows for little nuance in Bach’s personality, as he is agitated and irate without ease throughout the entire piece. Russell Beale is one of Britain’s strongest performers but he is unable to show his full, and often devastating, range within the constraints of Bach’s dialogue.
This piece is not just about Bach himself, but his sons. His two adult sons are Wilhelm and Carl and these men have the strongest dialogue and performances in the play. Wilhelm, the elder, undoubtably has the more natural talent but is a drunk and provides much of the lightness that flitters throughout the piece. Douggie McMeekin is exceptional as a prodigal son who is funded by Bach to drink away his hopes of success.
Samuel Blenkin portrays his younger brother Carl, the dedicated son who constantly challenges his father on his rigidity and favouritism. Blenkin’s performance is the strongest and displays a striking range – with his dogged enthusiasm for music, his softness towards his kind-hearted mother and his explosions of anger at his self-involved father.
The women in this piece are one-dimensional depictions of womanhood, all deeply in love with a selfish man marred by insatiable sexual desires despite a deep devotion to God. It is difficult to depict an early eighteenth century Germany without succumbing to the stereotype of the weak woman – we do not have first-hand accounts of these women’s thoughts and feelings. However, I like to think that more rage and anguish would come at the infidelity of a husband and the frequent deaths of children. Bach’s second wife, Anna, has an emotional breakdown at the deaths of many of their infant children but this breakdown does not strike true. Against an otherwise flat portrayal, it feels melodramatic and staged.
The fragility of infanthood is persistently visible throughout the piece, and in many of Bach’s pieces, as he deals repeatedly with the loss of a child. Yet, the portrayal in the physicality of the women treads too softly or too strong, avoiding the harsh realities of disease in the eighteenth century and the trauma that accompanied even middle-class life.
Bach and Sons is a deeply flawed script that is elevated by the strength of its performers and beautiful soundtrack. An undoubtably powerful composer, but contrary man, is brought to life through the stories of his sons and their struggles to live and succeed in his shadow.
Bach and Sons plays at The Bridge Theatre until 11 September 2021. For more information and tickets see The Bridge Theatre’s website.