33 Variations is many things, perhaps not unsurprisingly considering the title. Moisés Kaufman’s script explores pain, mortality, love, sacrifice, and how the search for truth – academic or artistic – can easily tip over from drive to obsession.
The play weaves two narratives in and out with each other: Between 1819 and 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven (William McInnes) writes a set of 33 variations of a waltz composed by Anton Diabelli (Francis Greenslade). It’s not an easy time, with financial pressures as well as his hearing loss to content with. Why he is so obsessed with an otherwise mediocre work is a mystery even to his closest aid, Anton Schindler (Andre De Vanny).
In the present day, Katherine Brandt is determined to uncover the reasons behind Beethoven’s obsession with Diabelli’s waltz. It’s not an easy time – a fraught relationship with her daughter, Clara (Lisa McCune), made more distressing with Katherine’s recently diagnosed Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Even with the help of her colleague, Dr Ladenburger (Helen Morse) and nurse, Mike (Toby Truslove), Katherine’s time is running out.
Against Dann Barber’s magnificent two-storey set, Melbourne was privileged to watch some remarkable theatre. Love and duty are obligations with complicated motives, something portrayed well in both timelines; by Andre De Vanny and Francis Greenslade in the past, and by Helen Morse, Toby Truslove, and Lisa McCune in the present.
The music of Beethoven is a grand subject, yet it was the smaller moments – Schindler taking his master’s desperate hand, Clara holding her mother close – that resonated after the show ended. William McInnes was wonderful in his turn as Beethoven, not depicting a mythic figure from the history books, but rather portraying an artist driven by forces even he doesn’t fully understand.
Katherine’s physical deterioration and emotional journey from denial, through rage and racing the clock, to a place of peace was incredibly affecting and beautifully performed by Ellen Burstyn.
Andrea Katz was the first performer on stage and played piano throughout, the glue holding these two worlds together. On paper, 33 Variations might give the impression of an intellectual exercise about an intellectual exercise, but this was nothing of the sort – rather Director, Gary Abrahams, has crafted with cast & crew a night of compelling theatre that tells a moving story with heart and grace.
Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 10 March 2019
Season continues to 24 March 2019
Information and Bookings: www.33variations.com.au
Image: Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn and Lisa McCune star in 33 Variations – photo by Lachlan Woods
Review: David Collins