Prolific actor and playwright Oliver Cotton’s new play (another world premiere for Theatre Royal Bath) turns the spotlight on a particular moment in composer JS Bach’s life when, in the spring of 1747 at the age of 62, he was summoned from his home in Leipzig to the court of King Frederick II of Prussia.
You don’t need to know your fugues and motets from your secular oratorios, cantata and toccatas to appreciate Bach’s status and legacy. Neither do you need to be conversant in the machinations of late 18th/early 19th century European power-politics to follow the plot. Would it help if you did? No. Because this captivating snapshot of two meetings between two historical figures who each, in their own individual ways, had a major impact on the world we live in today isn’t all and only about music, or European royalty, or politics, or even about which of the two men held the most power over the other. It is, from opening motif to final cadence, all and only about humanity… or lack thereof.
Despite legendary actor Brian Cox’s massively impressive CV, just one major buzzword has been getting Bath buzzing in the build-up to his first residency at the Theatre Royal. Going back to the questions posed in my opening paragraph, would being au fait with HBO’s satirical drama behemoth Succession add to your appreciation of The Score? I’m probably the last person standing to have never seen Succession, so on that particular score, I can only say I don’t know.
What I do know, though, is that fans of the series’ “fiendish patriarch and merciless media mogul Logan Roy” will see a very different Cox here: a wistful, tender maestro of metaphysics, quietly philosophical but subtly feisty, acquiescing to the physical frailties of age but fiercely proud of his artistic talent and steadfast in his faith in God and love of his homeland. He cuts a powerful figure from start to finish, his charisma never wavering even in his many quieter moments. Cox, like Bach, has star quality; in The Score, both men are giants who offer audiences multiple gifts that keep on giving.
Putting Cox in the wings for a moment, director Trevor Nunn (we’re on stellar UK stage royalty territory here) has assembled an impressive company here. The spark between Bach/Cox and Bach’s supportive wife Anna when they embrace, kiss or merely exchange glances is palpable; when you realise that the part of Anna is played by Cox’s real-life wife Nicole Ansari-Cox, you understand why.
Matthew Burns brings solid stoicism to the role of Bach’s loyal son Carl,
Peter De Jersey is fabulously flamboyant and, perhaps, deliciously duplicitous as the pioneering French philosopher Voltaire (if you find yourself thinking that he could have been extra in a 1980s New Romantic-era video, that’s because Voltaire was indeed a New Romantic icon), and Christopher Staines, Benedict Salter and Eric Sirakian are an almost comedic triple act as Carl’s fellow palace musicians and courtiers Quantz, Benda and Graun.
But it’s Stephen Hagan’s portrayal of ruthless warlord Frederick the Great, the king who has ostensibly invited Bach to play at the palace and advise on his harpsichord collection, who provides Cox with a foil who’s every bit as steadfast in his convictions. Beyond Fred’s seemingly innocent motives, affable personality and extravagant, bling-laden wardrobe there lie far more sinister proclivities. And despite Bach’s apparently mild-mannered personality, those proclivities are set to be challenged.
Having been lulled into a comfortable but false sense of security through the play’s slightly meandering scene-setting preambles across the first acts, a gripping battle of wills, morals and convictions pack an ungloved punch in the second half. Designer Robert Jones’ sets push their way to the front of the ensemble at this point too: the style may be economical, but a vivid sense of place puts us right at the heart of Potsdam Palace – and the headquarters of a war room that Bach believes is rotten to the core.
The horrors of war, the spirit that drives artistic inspiration, the meaning of faith, the obligations of sovereignty, divine intervention, moral corruption; one act, two actors, and an incredible script resulting in a magnificent, unforgettable piece of theatre. The themes may spark controversy, the characters may be persuasive, but a deep relevance resonates almost 300 years on from the play’s historical setting. Cotton is a genius, Nunn a magician, and Cox and Hagan virtuosos of their craft.
By the time Bach returned home to his wife in Leipzig (taking Fred’s servant with him – long story, all good), the brutal, bloody Prussian-orchestrated Silesian Wars were still raging around his Saxony homeland… and he had a certain Mass in B Minor to complete (plus a couple of revisions still to do on The Art of Fugue) before his death in 1750. As for King Fred: between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis glorified him as a spiritual ancestor of Adolf Hitler. But as Voltaire himself wrote, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”