Gustav Mahler lived quite the life. A genius late romantic composer and acclaimed conductor, who famously sought psychological advice from Freud, he was connected (willingly or unwillingly) with some of the great creative minds of the early twentieth century, such as Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius. His real-life connections make the cast list look like a game of “which famous person, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner”. With this in mind, the decision taken by Love, Genius and a Walk playwright Gay Walley to parallel his story with one of a nameless modern writer and her unlikeable wealth-loving husband is a curious one.
Love, Genius and a Walk seeks to do many things, one of which is dissect artists, those that love them, and the artist’s condition. It does this by telling two parallel stories of a modern writer (Helen Cunningham) and Gustav Mahler (Lloyd Morris). However, the relatedness of the two stories is not as self-evident as the play presents it to be. Gustav Mahler’s arc catches him obsessively trying to complete his tenth symphony which causes him to alienate himself from his beautiful young wife Alma (Chloe Booyens), who he worries is having an affair. Our modern writer is of middling academic fame and is financially dependent on her husband (Benjamin Murray) who understands her obscure cultural references but for some reason encourages her to write fiction more akin to Fifty Shades of Grey.
A comparison of the relationships is a bit like comparing apple to oranges; both couples are indeed married but it’s easy to see why Alma fell for Mahler, who she considers a genius, whereas the union of the modern-day couple seems bizarre and you’ll find yourself actively wishing for its end, whether or not it’s forthcoming. The work ethic of the two protagonists is also dissimilar. Mahler’s work consumes him and he lives a completely regimented life, whereas the modern-day writer does not approach her work with the same voraciousness and instead discusses at length the serious nature of her art and other serious art, and the enduring legacy of Mahler. The only (far-fetched) link between the two stories seems to be that it is lonely to be an artist and lonely to love an artist.
The focal point of the piece seems to be Mahler’s walk with Freud where he receives psychological analysis in a park with frequent interruptions (perhaps for comic effect) from fans of the two and a lady with dogs. It is at this point that the earlier action of the play reveals itself to be a thin backdrop to this conversation and it’s a shame that the character of Alma is not further developed beyond the obvious plot points of her affair and dissatisfaction with her marriage. Despite having seen her for the majority of the play, her desires and personality are not at all developed, and instead we are largely told by her husband and Freud who she is, how she feels and why she feels that way. The modern writer’s story is confused, her husband deeply unsympathetic for no apparent reason, and the inclusion of a potential affair unnecessary.
Somewhere within Love, Genius and a Walk – in between the unclear message about the reality of being an artist and its dramatisation of this famous walk between Freud and Mahler – there is a profound point to be made. The setting is there, the compelling characters too, a decision just needs to be taken as to what it really is about.
Love, Genius and a Walk played at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 8 October. For more information, click here.