Monday 25 November 2013

Sins of the Fathers

Cosima, Wagner, Lizst and Nietsche
Cosima, Wagner, Lizst and Nietsche
Jessica Duchen's new play Sins of the Fathers was given a rehearsed reading at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond as the final event in this year's Wimbledon Music Festival. Illustrated with the composers' music, the play looks at the relationship between Richard Wagner, his second wife Cosima and her father Franz Liszt. John Sessions played Richard Wagner and Jeremy Child was Franz Liszt. The third actor, Sarah Gabriel, didn't play Cosima but a contemporary figure Vickie who got mixed up in their world.

The play had been billed as a simply exploring 'the intriguing relationships' between the three characters. This was a potentially very dark subject, neither Liszt nor Wagner seem to have been very pleasant characters, but then such is the way of genius. As a way of providing a modern critique of their attitudes, Duchen had created something which was rather more intriguing and complex in structure.

Opening in the present day with a famous pianist and his new young wife visiting Wagner's house Triebschen, Duchen introduced the young wife, Vickie, to the ghosts of Wagner and Liszt who cast her in the role of Cosima and re-enacted old quarrels. The second act contained the real meat of the drama, as Wagner and Liszt discussed the role of the Jews, Parsifal and Hermann Levy's conducting of the premiere, as well as Liszt's retrospective (and false) claims to have invented the famous Tristan chord. By having Vicky present Duchen was able to inject an element of modern perspective on these events.

Unfortunately it was achieved by having the rather strange ghostly/time travel element in the play, the thing which was least convincing about the play's structure. I felt that it would have been stronger if Duchen had simply interleaved scenes in the past with scenes in the present day (though that would have required more actors) in the manner of Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia.  We did get to hear Wagner's music, but I would have liked more music and fewer words.

The three actors were all using scripts but gave strong performances. John Sessions was a masterly Wagner, conveying something of the character's nastiness and charisma, Jeremy Child was excellent in the dual role of Frank and Liszt, and Sarah Gabriel was a strong Vicky.

A fascinating subject, which Duchen has clearly got to know well, and which her play begins to bring alive. I do hope that there are further opportunities for the work to be developed and performed.

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