Turning the lives of great composers into theatre is a dodgy task – remembering those 1950s films where Grieg or Schubert strike artistic poses at the piano as they pen their latest masterpiece. And according to the author James Runcie, a more recent plan for a biopic about Bach was ditched on the grounds that if it followed history it would be too dull – Johann Sebastian’s life being overwhelmed by the relentless requirements of serving God and the sung liturgy in Leipzig’s churches.
But unperturbed by such precedents, Runcie has produced a Bach-based play with music, The Great Passion. And though written for radio, it has just been staged at the Dartington Festival in Devon. Not unlike a music-loving take on Butlins, Dartington is a gloriously civilised institution where leading musicians come to stay for a week or so, giving performances by night and running courses by day.
Their pupils are either conservatoire students or older amateurs: librarians, doctors and lawyers earnestly rehearsing string quartets or learning oratorios. And every week is themed around a major project – which in this case was Bach’s Matthew Passion, unconventionally done with the role of the Evangelist shared between a tenor (Tom Randle) and soprano (Gillian Keith).
But the night before came Runcie’s play about the writing of the Passion, done with actors, singers and a Baroque band under period-specialist conductor Robert Howarth. Staged on minimal rehearsal, it wasn’t a pristine show. But pristine isn’t Dartington’s objective: this is a place where talented people come together to make something out of nothing, with an energy that may be seat-of-the-pants but is somehow special. And The Great Passion was just that. Runcie’s text was fanciful but plausible.
It offered a convincing portrait of Bach’s workaday relationship with God (assisted perhaps by Runcie’s personal experience as the son of an Anglican archbishop). And if there wasn’t too much drama in the narrative, the music camouflaged its absence – forcefully, keeping the audience onside.
The onside audience is another speciality of Dartington. And last week it supported some outstanding concerts: one a late-nighter in which the countertenor Andrew Watts went mad, singing repertoire where the protagonist loses his mind, and another where the pianist Joanna MacGregor showcased a different kind of madness – playing a tough programme at the end of a day in which she’d presumably dealt with endless administrative issues as Dartington’s artistic director and spent the afternoon teaching. That the recital was being recorded for Radio 3 (listen out for the broadcast) made her gutsiness the more remarkable. And did the audience love her for it? They went truly crazy.
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