Johann Sebastian Bach is about to hit the London stage. There’s nothing unusual about that – we’ve seen his music in countless concerts, theatrical and dance performances – but this time, the master of music has the starring role in his own play: on 23rd June, the curtain will rise on Nina Raine’s Bach & Sons at the Bridge Theatre, just south of the Thames near Tower Bridge. The casting decision on director Nicholas Hytner's hands can’t have been a difficult one: for the lead role, Hytner turned to his long term collaborator Sir Simon Russell Beale, who, apart from being one of the great stage actors of our time, is a former choral scholar and remains a keen amateur musician. I spoke to him (by Zoom, inevitably) during rehearsals at The Bridge. My first question, of course, was to ask how those rehearsals are going...

Simon Russell Beale
© Matthew Harlan

“We’ve done two and a bit weeks and of course, it’s great to be rehearsing a live show. But it doesn’t feel any different from before lockdown, to be honest. There’s not any physical contact on stage, but oddly, I’m not sort of noticing, particularly because there are no love scenes or anything like that – so it feels the same as ever. I’m looking across the rehearsal room now: in the centre of the stage, we have a harpsichord, and at the back, we have another harpsichord or a fortepiano, which can slide in later in the play. And a lot of scores and a couple of stringed instruments.”

He and Bach go back a long way. “I can't remember when I first started listening to Bach, probably before I was conscious of it. My family is rather strange in that we only ever listened to classical music. Not sort of deliberately: it was just how it happened. My father still is a very skilled amateur singer; he was a choral scholar and has sung all his life and conducted all his life. So what we listened to at home was classical music. We always joke in the family that our version of pop culture was the King’s Singers, who were very, very skillful, but not exactly David Bowie! Because my dad was an army doctor, we travelled around the world and so our access to contemporary television and film culture was minimal, so what we did was to listen to classical music. I started having piano lessons when I was about five or six, and then I went to choir school; that, of course, is when my conscious experience of Bach started. We used to do a St Matthew Passion every year at St Paul’s Cathedral at Easter, and a Messiah at Christmas. But those Matthew Passions are very, very memorable and they've stuck deep inside me.”

Simon Russell Beale (J.S.Bach), Samuel Blenkin (C.P.E Bach)
© Manuel Harlan

When he started preparing for Bach & Sons, he already had a reasonable idea of the basic Bach biography (“I grew up on the famous stories about copying music by moonlight or his walk to Lübeck to see Buxtehude, so it’s been a nice way of reminding myself of what I learned as a child”) but it has been useful to study the various periods of Bach’s life (Köthen, Leipzig etc) and things like who he married and when. He admits that “I’m always doing plays on subjects I know nothing about”, which leads to the obvious next question: we know about Bach as a composer, but how much do we know about his character and personality? The answer, it turns out, is “Very little. Of course, he was a great grump and he was very good at complaining. He complained a lot to the town council or the church or the court or whoever was employing him. One of the sadnesses of doing this play is the realisation that he probably never really heard a great performance of any of his work. It’s fiendishly difficult technical stuff; it doesn’t allow the singers to breathe, I remember that from my own personal experience. And then we’ve got a very sad letter when he’s writing about his son Gottfried, the youngest son of his first wife, who ended up basically screwing up his life, he died of some sort of seizure when he was quite young. Gottfried goes missing and owes money and Bach writes to Gottfried’s boss and says ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know where he is and if ever you get any information, please let me know.’”

How, then, to approach playing such a character and determine the voice to use? “Funnily enough, I’ve played a couple of geniuses – I played Schubert once – and it’s really difficult to know what to do because I've obviously no idea what it’s like to be a genius, so I think you probably have to forget that. The play pits his very complicated and fugal style – this is historically accurate and it’s fascinating – against his sons, especially CPE’s new gallant style, which was a precursor of Haydn and Mozart’s classical style. So we pitch one against the other and it’s to do with locating various things that we all can understand, like ‘I'm getting old, I'm out of fashion, nobody's interested in my music anymore. I think I'm brilliant, but nobody else seems to.’ Also two marriages, happy enough, since there were 20 children, so there’s the ordinary day to day drudgery of living in a crowded house with a partner your not necessarily in love with any more. We know he liked drink: on his second marriage, he ordered an enormous quantity of alcohol – I don’t think there’s any food mentioned on the bill, it’s just crates and crates of wine. He obviously liked sex, and musically we know he was a great lover of dances. So it’s more about those sort of localised psychological states rather than thinking ‘Oh my God, he’s a genius and wrote some of the most beautiful music ever written’. I don’t know how you play that.” Figuring out the right voice for Bach is still a work in progress (“I’m having a little bit of trouble: in physical terms, I think my voice is a little high, I think he should be more earthbound.”)

He is “extremely fond” of Hytner, whom he describes as “fiercely clever. But people don’t realise how kind Nick is, on the floor, in rehearsal. And how patient. It’s why I could never be a director, because with the great directors, their delicacy of getting performances out of people is extraordinary, I don’t think I’d have the patience. And their long term strategy is very impressive: they can see where something will be in two weeks time rather than what it’s like now, which is also a great directorial skill.”

Nina Raine
© Manuel Harlan

An interview like this isn’t the right place for spoilers, but he is obviously very impressed with playwright Nina Raine. He particularly points out her “effortless” ability to write a scene for six characters on stage simultaneously while giving each their individual characteristics; he is also astounded by her ability to hold hundreds of connections in her head which will come out in the script, sometimes in widely separated scenes in the play. Raine is flexible about making changes during rehearsal: she is the first to admit that she’s not a musician herself, but is getting a lot of advice from musicians as to whether her lines are the sort of the thing a musician would say, including him (“I’m a sort of half musician: I know how choirmasters talk, for instance, and there's a scene where Bach has to train the choir.”) And she’s not averse to playing with musical structure: the sung biblical line about Judas’ betrayal “before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me thrice” is mimicked by a mechanical bird belonging to Frederick the Great (who Bach feels betrays him), or Carl  writing a fugue in which he "favours the second voice", which Raine uses as an ironic comment about Bach favouring his second son over his first.

It’s been a commonplace, particularly in our times of pandemic, that people wanting consolation or catharsis reach for the music of Bach. I ask if there’s a particular piece for which he heads in times of trouble? He points out gently but firmly that I’m asking the wrong question. “I go for excitement. Predominantly, the moments of classical music that are really memorable for me are the ones when my adrenalin starts soaring. And that includes the beginning of the Matthew Passion: I can’t hear the opening chords without thinking ‘ah, here we go, this immensely exciting three hour journey. Here is a great story to tell’. And that was from eight years old – from very long ago”.

Simon Russell Beale
© Manuel Harlan

Certainly, this is a man who takes his music seriously. Is he ever frivolous about music? “I feel embarrassed to say this: I have bopped in my dressing room. Things like The Mamas and the Papas or, rather more pretentiously, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, which is a great dance. So I have bopped along. There are pieces – again being pretentious – the first time I listened to the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto, it actually made me laugh out loud, it has such as stupid tune in the middle of it.”

During lockdown, he says, he has been reasonably diligent about reading and piano practice, partly with this play in mind: “I thought I’d better get some Bach under my fingers, just in case Nick goes ‘Have you got a spare prelude that you can mime?’ And in fact it did happen at one point, so yes, I had a spare fugue up my sleeve.”

One of his life ambitions, he once said in an interview, was to be able to play a piece of music all the way through without swearing. Has he succeeded in fulfilling that ambition? “I said that to a piano teacher about five years ago called Lucy Parham, who is now a friend, and she got me to do it. I did a little Schumann piece from Kinderszenen. And it was in public, so I couldn’t swear. The F word didn’t appear at all and I managed to get all the way through to the end without stopping. It wasn’t a great performance, but I did manage it and I have to say that the sense of achievement was huge.”

I ask if there’s significant overlap between concertgoers and his fans in the theatre. Possibly, he suggests: “I think there is a quite a big group of fairly quiet theatre-goers, who you don’t really appreciate – the sort of people who just regularly go the theatre as a sort of habit, which I admire very much: they just love that ritual of going to see something in the theatre every couple of weeks. They probably are the same sort of people that go to live concerts.” But a journalist asked him recently about the supposed falling attendance in classical concerts and he is conscious that he doesn’t go to nearly enough of them, given that “every time I go to a live concert, I think this is absolutely marvellous and have a completely different experience from recorded. Every time the Proms ends, I go ‘Oh bugger, I really wanted to go to more Proms this year’. But I don’t. And it’s on my doorstep. It’s why I’m talking about thrill rather than solace: there’s no thrill like hearing the opening of Bach’s Magnificat. When I did some programmes for the BBC about history of music and acting, I kept on thinking I’ve got to just keep saying to the camera ‘come and see this live’, because it’s just a different experience, there’s nothing like it.”

Bach & Sons runs at the Bridge Theatre from 23 June to 9 September 2021