Simon Thomas in the South West
21 October 2023
The first time I saw Brian Cox on stage was in the mid-1970s, when he was playing Brutus at the National Theatre to John Gielgud’s Julius Caesar. It shows just how long he has been playing leading roles in the theatre. Another actor in that production was Oliver Cotton and he and Cox are now reunited for the premiere of Cotton’s play The Score, which has opened at Bath’s Theatre Royal.
Nicole Ansari-Cox and Brian Cox.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The play imagines a meeting between Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great, when the great composer visited the Prussian court in 1747. The historical information is that the two men met and the king challenged Bach to improvise on a theme of Frederick’s invention, resulting in the compilation of canons, fugues, and trio sonata that make up The Musical Offering BWV 1079.
It’s promising material for dramatic treatment, given the temperamental differences of the two men: Bach a deeply religious family man steeped in musical composition and the tyrant king who combined warmongering with an amateur love of the flute.
Direction is by Trevor Nunn and has all the hallmarks of his decades of experience and track record in producing intelligent and imaginative theatre. The rich set design and gorgeous costumes by Robert Jones make for a sumptuous visual evening and the performances by an experienced and capable cast make the best of what’s given them.
The evening does not hang together, however, due to a script that has eloquent dialogue but no big idea. It muddles through a number of themes without a central focus, so we get the contrast between genius and mediocrity (inevitable shades of Amadeus), pacifism and war, compassion and cruelty, faith and atheism, but nothing that binds the whole thing together.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The first act spends a long time setting the scene and is somewhat dull but things take off after the interval, as the king proposes a bet, with Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, that the old man won’t be able to improvise a three-part fugue on a devilishly difficult theme Frederick has composed. The play comes alive at this point, as three court composers, Quantz, Benda, and Graun, raise the stakes by siding with the king and propelling the younger Bach towards probable financial ruin. The play’s title The Score is as much about winning points as it is a musical reference.
The result of the contest is predictable and brings to mind Mozart’s genius in turning a banal little tune by Salieri into The Marriage of Figaro march in Peter Shaffer’s earlier play. What follows is a showdown between King Frederick and old JS, which pits the one’s callousness against the other’s humanity, as the composer calls the dictator to account for the behaviour of his soldiers when on duty in his home city of Leipzig. Andrew Lloyd Webber tearing a strip off Putin might be a modern equivalent and this was dramatic but barely more credible.
Brian Cox, who is heading back into the West End next spring in Long Day’s Journey into Night, is all gruff bluster as the older Bach in a role that doesn’t test him enormously, although it is demanding in terms of the number of lines, some of which Cox fumbled on press night, and length of time on stage. He shows his kindness and interest in other people despite a seemingly rough exterior and sympathy lies all with him in his struggle against the buffoonish king (Stephen Hagan in a role that is comic but light on despotism). Cox is commanding, as you’d expect from an actor of his stature but the characterization doesn’t go deep enough to really test him. It seems a gentle warm-up for his forthcoming encounter with O’Neill.
The rest of the ensemble – Cox’s real-life wife Nicole Ansari-Cox (Anna), Matthew Burns (CPE), Doña Croll (Emilia), Christopher Staines (Quantz), Benedict Salter (Benda), and Eric Sirakian (Graun) – all acquit themselves with distinction. The only jarring performance is that of Peter de Jersey as a foppish, sycophantic Voltaire with a comedy accent. This is no fault of the actor; again, the writing is the problem and one wonders why Cotton chose to portray the great philosopher in this way. There’s no real reason for him to be there, other than that Voltaire did attend Frederick’s court at about the same time, and it’s not clear what purpose he serves. A meeting of Frederick, Bach, and Voltaire could make for an interesting dramatic situation but this isn’t the play for it.
Riding on the back of the success of his Netflix series Succession, Cox is clearly the big draw, and this is a good opportunity to see a major actor in a welcome return to the stage, but it isn’t as memorable as many people will hope.