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REVIEW: 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman

Andrea Katz (at piano), Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn & Lisa McCune
in 33 Variations. Photo: Lachlan Woods

In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, sent a waltz of his creation to all the important composers of the time, including Ludwig van Beethoven. He wanted to publish the collection of variations and Beethoven at first refused to be involved – and then he ended up writing thirty-three variations on Diabelli’s waltz.

In the present, musicologist Katharine Brandt is obsessed with trying to understand why Beethoven chose to write such a feat of musical composition. But as she gets ready to travel to Bonn in Germany to continue her research, she is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – and her daughter Clara wonders if her mother should even be going.

As Katharine’s body begins to deteriorate, we see her suffering paralleled with Beethoven’s frustration with the Diabelli Variations – and his struggles with losing his hearing. The deeper Katharine studies the great man’s work, the harder it becomes for her to understand his motivations.

Producer Cameron Lukey has assembled an all-star cast for this production in Melbourne, led by Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Ellen Burstyn in the role of Katharine Brandt. It’s unusual for such a high-profile overseas actor to be cast in a local production, rather than visiting with an international touring show; the opening-night audience showed their appreciation with entrance applause – something I’ve only ever seen happen at Broadway shows.

Burstyn is joined by Lisa McCune, playing Katharine’s daughter, Clara. They are a strong match on stage, sparring throughout even as Katharine’s health deteriorates and the pair can’t agree on her end-of-life plan. Toby Truslove plays Katharine’s nurse who later becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and he’s predictably goofy, throwing in some welcome physical comedy in amongst the heavy drama.

William McInnes is commanding in the role of Beethoven, veering between arrogant and tortured genius and finding his way to composer who is suffering – a transformation that is surprisingly affecting. He gets to argue with Francis Greenslade as Diabelli and Andre de Vanny as Schindler, his assistant. As the play progresses, Beethoven becomes less of an enigma and more of a man that Katharine can understand and relate to.

Moises Kaufman’s script is strong, really digging into Katharine and Clara’s relationship – one that is difficult to watch at times, as Katharine confesses that she’s scared that Clara will only ever be mediocre. And the role of Katharine is such a gift for a female actor who is now in her eighties.

Dann Barber’s set is striking on first entering the theatre; two levels, lots of classic arches and metallic railing that looks like a musical stave. Slowly, over the course of the play, it reveals further depths and the use of digital screens and cameras was effective, especially during the sequence when Katharine is undergoing scans at the hospital.

Pianist Andrea Katz is on stage the whole time, playing the different variations exquisitely, though she’s also used effectively during dramatic moments when Beethoven loses his temper or Katharine is lost in the music.

There were a few dialogue stumbles on opening night and the doors on the set sometimes didn’t quite close as they were supposed to. But director Gary Abrahams’ vision for the play is as clear and precise as the notes in Beethoven’s sketch books; a grand, perfect façade can belie an inability to communicate – which is the greatest tragedy of all. For an artist and for a parent and child.

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