Ellen Burstyn raises bar, cast meet challenge in sublime production
33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman,
Until March 24
Actors Equity rules used to strongly discourage this kind of production, which unites an international star with a strong Australian cast. Thank goodness that’s not the case now.
Melbourne theatregoers should race to see Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations.
Perfect casting, excellent performances and Ellen Burstyn, most famous for her lead roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – they’re all major drawcards for anyone who cares about acting craft.
Burstyn plays Katherine Brandt, an ageing musicologist devoted to the study of Beethoven. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Dr Brandt is drawn to unlock one last aesthetic mystery: the key to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.
How did a ‘‘mediocre waltz’’, Katherine wonders, inspire Beethoven to compose a masterwork, generally regarded as the most significant creative development of its kind in Western art music after Bach’s Goldberg Variations?
It defies her understanding, as does her daughter Clara (Lisa McCune) – a costume designer she sees as feckless and condemned to mediocrity.
Flying to Bonn to visit a Beethoven archive overseen by a fellow scholar (Helen Morse), Katherine seeks illumination through cracks in history.
But as her speculations about the past are enacted in comic counterpoint, with scenes featuring Beethoven (William McInnes), his publisher, patron and muse Diabelli (Francis Greenslade), and his secretary Anton Schindler (Andre de Vanny), Katherine’s condition deteriorates.
Her daughter travels to be with her, and an awkward, budding romance between Clara and her mother’s nurse (Toby Truslove) is juxtaposed with a fractious mother-daughter relationship reconciled in adversity.
In music, Katherine finds, as in love, you sometimes need to whittle your focus back to impulse, to inspiration uncontaminated by technique, to find the truth.
Burstyn is a revelation as a dry, erudite and uncompromising woman whose critical faculties and intellectual curiosity can hear every nuance in her area of expertise but leave her deaf to, and straining to comprehend, her intimates.
It’s a luminous, masterfully compressed performance that will deepen your appreciation of Beethoven’s music (played live by pianist Andrea Katz), even as it conveys with the lightest of touches a grim, immediately recognisable family situation, in which continuity and change are harmonised through a series of profoundly moving transformations.
Burstyn raises the bar very high indeed, and the cast rises to the occasion. McCune spans romantic comedy and the desolations of grief without a trace of ego, alive to what a complicated thing it is to portray ordinariness, with any degree of authenticity, onstage.
Truslove as her character’s love interest does something similar, though in a heightened, adorably goofy persona. And Helen Morse doesn’t waste a gesture as the kind, owlish professor Katherine befriends.
The historical subplot receives a more expansive, larger-than-life performance style, spearheaded by the gargantuan presence of William McInnes as Beethoven, and ably supported by Greenslade and de Vanny.
That Gary Abrahams is a superb director of actors is beyond dispute, and it’s great to see an ambitious production team uniting him with such a high-calibre cast.
Music and theatre lovers will find 33 Variations sublime, and Australian theatre should strive for more commercial productions like this one.
Apart from anything else, performing with legends like Ellen Burstyn tends to bring out the best in our own actors.
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