Biopics are great fun, but daunting. 33 Variations gives us Beethoven, a larger than life subject that is prone to generalisations as an ‘irascible old man burdened by genius’. Fortunately, this production by Castle Hill Players is directed with precision and clarity, eliciting performances that are nuanced, graceful and connected.
Directed by Jennifer Willison and written by Moisés Kaufman, the play revolves around Beethoven’s famous 33 variations of a waltz by Anton Diabelli, a music publisher and composer. In 1819 Diabelli did a callout to significant composers to contribute a variation of his waltz for a new book.
In this fictionalised play, Dr Katherine Brandt, a respected music academic, is conducting fresh research of Beethoven’s variations for her upcoming paper. Methodical and practical by nature, she wants to get the facts exactly right, starting with an intimate biography of Beethoven by Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary, and later, his carer. However, in the process of conducting her research she discovers Schindler’s account isn’t really the source of truth; though written with first hand intimacy, it’s sloppy with the finer details, embellishing Beethoven’s creative process for dramatic effect. Schindler claims Beethoven hated the waltz and labelled it as ‘Schusterfleck’ (which, to my ears, sounded like ‘clusterfuck’ but actually means ‘cobbler’s patch’ i.e. ‘common’). Schindler also claims the number of variations was Beethoven’s way of mocking Diabelli, to laugh in his face the way Mozart does in Amadeus when he improvises on Salieri’s stodgy welcome march. But Katherine’s painstaking research discovers something else; Beethoven wasn’t motivated by spite or competitive ego, but an obsessive fascination to find the potential beauty of the waltz, to make something elegant and worthy out of a grain of sand.
With that grain of sand metaphor comes another one; time is running out for Katherine. She’s been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neurone disease, just as she’s planning to travel to Bonn in Germany to immerse herself in months of research. Clara, her daughter, doesn’t think it’s a good idea for her mother to go travelling, and tries to talk her out of it, but it’s no use. Katherine has a hard time connecting with Clara; she’s not silent about dismissing her daughter as a mediocrity, a massive disappointment for failing to stick to things. Katherine can only give the kind of cold love that leaves many daughters resentful of their mothers. The play navigates this conflict, juxtaposing the tumultuous Beethoven-Schindler narrative with the fractured mother-daughter relationship.
Directing a play with these complexities takes enormous skill and trust to find the rhythm, a rhythm that will connect the characters to the audience and each other. End of Act 1 brings a chorus of overlapping dialogue as each pairing of characters implores their partner to hear their point of view. The crescendo is very effective, with some slight ‘moments of trepidation’ as noted in Beethoven’s sketches, a sort of ‘ooops sorry’ reflex rather than speaking the full line with conviction and in unison. After a bumpy road of rehearsals which has affected all theatre companies since Covid, there’s no doubt this sequence will be solidified in upcoming performances.
In individual roles, the cast deliver tear-jerking performances, working faithfully to a sharp script full of biting humour. Michelle Masefield as Dr Katherine Brandt is authoritative, objective, always rational and stubbornly pigheaded, with no appetite for the porcine-knuckled delicacy that is offered to her. She plays well against the austere German librarian Gertie (Faith Jessel), an expensively dressed woman in heels who wears her hair like a blonde helmet. They size each other up and quickly get down to business of analysing Beethoven’s sketches with forensic precision, forming a bond from which a new friendship blossoms.
Steve Rowe as Beethoven is more than just ‘an irascible old man burdened by genius’, delivering his performance with formidable relish tempered by a maddening ache to push mediocrity away and find the highest expression of virtue. He could easily (and does) work on other things more worthy of his time, but the waltz has him obsessed with the artistic challenge of making something out of nothing. It’s like being addicted to word puzzles, seeing how many interesting words you can make from a jumble of letters. His obsessive intellect parallels beautifully with Dr Brandt’s obstinate need to fill her life with objective meaning, to reach a deeper and unique appreciation of his music. Centuries apart from her favourite dead-man crush, she finds more solace in the composer than she does in her own family.
Robert Snars as the immaculately handsome Schindler is energetic and versatile, an allegro to Beethoven’s impudent slowness in finishing the work. If Beethoven is a force to be reckoned with, throwing temper tantrums like a man-child, Schindler is the buffer, a valve to stop the pressure of deadlines and responsibilities from exploding out of control. Todd Beilby as the oafish Diabelli with a stake in music publishing is also very engaging, ping-ponging his will against Beethoven and Schindler’s temporising temperaments.
In the contemporary roles, Tia Cullen as Clara is more detached with a distracted look that never fully settles on one spot. There’s more internal monologue going on in her character. The subtext is avoidance. The energy significantly shifts in the final scene, becoming more present and self-realised, which is really lovely to see. Jen Rowe is sweet natured as Mike, Clara’s boyfriend and Katherine’s nurse. He plays his ‘heart of gold’ role with a steady, reliable tempo that gains bi-partisan trust in the mother-daughter relationship, and ultimately brings them closer together to find healing.
The extras cast includes Anthea Brown and Chiara Arita in various roles, such as the flight attendant and medical staff, drawing laughs with mere one-liners (“if you have been reading a book on Beethoven during this flight / put it away and snap out of it!”).
It goes without saying that sound is a very important element in this production. The sharp tinnitus ringing that plagues Beethoven’s hearing is keenly felt by the audience. Mercifully, it’s very brief. A live piano, as played by Andrew Beban, gives euphonic sound cues to the variations being studied by Katherine. Additional sound effects such as an x-ray machine or rapturous applause gives the characters something to react to; the pain on Katherine’s face in particular, as she is being examined by a machine as if she were a sketch, is heartbreaking.
With multiple time periods to contend with, the set design by Maureen Cartledge is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, with a pleasing geometric effect that visually looks like it’s been divided into 33 1/3 (though I have it on good authority this is not intentional!). The use of real estate is done well with an expert eye to create balance and harmony, with no space wasted and no waffly transitions. There is fluidity in the cross-over action required to bring the two narratives together. Particularly effective is the projection screen in the back corner of stage left which shows the city of Bonn, the sketches and the x-rays, giving the audience a visual reference as the characters describe them.
The costumes by Anthea Brown are splendid, with colourful choices and contrast when the characters find their moment of “transfiguration” as described in the play. I particularly liked Gertie’s outfits with its very Euro-chic vibe and bold choice of a hot pink blazer in one particular scene. Clara’s change of dress also stood out, from a casual look in sneakers to lovely evening wear in heels, making the most of her wonderful stature. The time-period outfits worn by the gents is also done with immaculate attention to detail, taking us back to the 1820s.
One final shoutout goes to the medical research behind this play, with Jonathan and Sharon Huynh credited as medical consultants. There are a lot of sensitive moments in this play that portray the degenerative effects of ALS and other debilitating conditions, and it is done with the highest amount of respect and dignity. The cast who took on these portrayals both as patients / caregivers are to be commended for their thorough preparation and commitment.
Overall, 33 Variations offers both intellectually and emotionally satisfying theatre, and it is an enormous privilege to witness a play with the highest calibre of world-class production values, right on the very doorstep of Castle Hill.
33 Variations by Castle Hill Players is on at The Pavilion Theatre till 24 June 2023. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://paviliontheatre.org.au/33variations/
Image credit: Chris Lundie