Friday 20 October 2023

The Score - Review

Theatre Royal, Bath


Written by Oliver Cotton
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Brian Cox

The Score is a bold historical tale that makes for some exceptional drama. Brian Cox plays Johann Sebastian Bach who not only was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period but was also a deeply spiritual man, fiercely proud of his native Silesia (now a part of Germany) and especially his home city of Leipzig. 

Set over a short period of time in Bach’s latter years, a time when the enlightened expansionist Frederick The Great ruled neighbouring Prussia and subsequently conquered Silesia, the play crafts an ingenious narrative around an actual visit that the 62 year-old Bach paid to Frederick in Potsdam, Prussia in 1747, some 3 years before the composer’s death. The play’s first half largely sets the scene and establishes the history of the time. Oliver Cotton has a lot to cram in to his story and there are times when act one drags, making the interval a much appreciated respite. 

The second half however, that opens in the economically but magnificently created Potsdam Palace, sizzles with a gripping dramatic intensity. Matthew Burns plays Bach’s son Carl a composer in Frederick’s court, who finds himself at the heart of an intriguing wager as to whether his father will be able to fashion a 3-part fugue drawn from a theme of Frederick’s creation. No spoilers here, but Cotton crafts a dramatic counterpoint between composer, court and monarch that has to rank amongst the best writing seen this year. Not only is there this nail-biting bet being played out, but when the music is done and dusted the elderly Bach takes the king to task for the appalling conduct of his Prussian troops in the composer’s beloved Silesia.

There are timeless echoes in Cotton’s narrative. As Bach describes the rape of a blind teenage girl in Leipzig by a trio of Frederick’s soldiers, the barbarity chimes with the horrific atrocities in Israel that have grabbed our recent headlines. And as Frederick speaks of the rights of Prussia to reclaim its neighbouring territories, there is a chilling foresight as to the expansionist supremacy that underlay Weimar and then Nazi Germany in the 20th century. 

Cox is magnificent in his role, capturing not only Bach’s genius and pride in his faith and in his homeland, but also his succumbing to the frailties of his later years. His is a virtuoso performance of nuance, perception and perfectly pitched rage that sees the actor on stage for virtually all of the first half and most of the second.

Trevor Nunn has assembled a fine company around his leading man. Cox’s real life missus, Nicole Ansari-Cox plays Bach’s wife Anna, Stephen Hagan’s Frederick channels a far shrewder (and more vicious) take on the bumbling monarchs that Hugh Laurie captured so cleverly in the various Blackadder TV series of yesteryear. 

Robert Jones has designed the piece as ever, immaculately, helped in no small measure by Karen Large’s costume work and Campbell Young’s wig work. A nod too to Sophie Cotton whose contribution to the evening’s sound design and music is exquisite.

This is a brave and bold piece from Cotton that in its style makes a fine tilt at the honours garnered by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Only on for a ridiculously short run, it demands a transfer to London and a wider audience.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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