Bach & Sons – a play by Nina Raine in two acts [world premiere: June 29, 2021]
Johann Sebastian Bach – Sir Simon Russell Beale
Maria Barbara Bach – Pandora Colin
Anna Magdalena Wilcke – Rachel Ofori
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – Samuel Blenkin
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach – Douggie McMeekin
Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach – William Barker, Teddy Button, Ardan Hennelly, Harry Weston
Katharina – Ruth Lass
Frederick the Great – Pravessh Rana
Sir Nicholas Hytner – Director
Johann Sebastian Bach – Music
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach – Music
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – Music
Frederick the Great – Music
Vicki Mortimer – Set designer
Khadija Raza – Costume designer
George Fenton – Music supervision
John Clark – Lighting designer
Gareth Fry – Sound Designer
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 27 July, 2021
Venue: Bridge Theatre, Southwark, London SE1
Bach & Sons is a new play (opening night performance on June 29) about Johann Sebastian Bach, his absolute devotion to his music, and his consequently antagonistic relationship with two of his sons (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann) and their music, as well as themes about counterpoint both within Bach’s own music and how this can reflect the characters’ interactions with each other. Also featuring are Bach’s first wife (Maria Barbara), her sister Katharina, and his second wife Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Johann Gottfried Bernhard is seen as a young boy growing up, and then is no more, and Frederick the Great makes a couple of appearances. And it is about creative genius; the pursuit of artistic endeavours for God – “It’s all for Him!”, exclaims Bach to his exasperated family.
Comparisons between this play and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus come ever more to the fore as it progresses, particularly – spoiler alert – as the mortally ill Bach is seen attempting to compose: for both Mozart and Bach, the body was failing but the musical mind remained undimmed, and both are similarly and effectively portrayed. Act One carries heavily a lot of exposition and explanation of music. Tragedy is rattled through – Bach fathered twenty children; six sons and four daughters survived into adulthood – and powerfully evoked as one offspring’s death after another is announced, and then the wife is pregnant again, and seemingly always looking after a baby or young child. It is a busy first act.
Act One is very much a ‘kitchen sink’ affair: Bach, his wife and his sons all squabbling with each other in claustrophobic living arrangements – Vicki Mortimer’s set is sensational throughout, and so too Jon Clark’s lighting – and even the sister of the Bach’s wife thrown in, all quite nasty to each other. Wilhelm’s descent into alcoholism due to this is very affecting – Douggie McMeekin bringing this slow-burn descent off with quite pulverizing force come his closing moments of Act Two. And the distance from his father that C.P.E. develops, artistically through the music that he composes and literally by leaving home for employment opportunities, is understandable and wholly believable; Bach will not tell Carl that he loves him or about what is good with his music.
At the start of Act Two Pravessh Rana almost steals the show as a camp mischievously camp Frederick the Great, for whom Carl works. It is a standout performance, and reminded of the show-stealing George III creation in Hamilton. Later, Frederick, who is now employing Carl, plays with and teases Bach when the great man comes to his court: here was menace and tragedy as the young emperor, who has little respect or deference to age, mocks Bach. Simon Russell Beale gives much ardor to what he is given to do: he is the only one that seems to age, and is quite a sad sight come the close.
Bach & Sons is an entertaining play. It is episodic, and the snatches of character are memorable. But, even with the presence of the towering historic figure that is Johann Sebastian Bach, the play itself skirts around the edges of the lives portrayed. The composers’ music itself is done some justice given the constraints that this is a play with much dialogue, and it is effectively reproduced through recordings, although perhaps Beale played a few things himself on the harpsichord; I could not quite tell from my vantage point.