Performances, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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In some works of art, life and art are inextricably interwoven. The artist’s private feelings and experiences become so much part of the legend surrounding the composition that the biography becomes part and parcel of the poem, the play or the painting.

This summer George Balanchine’s three-act ballet Don Quixote comes to the Edinburgh Festival: the first thing any dance-goer already knows about it is that Balanchine, already four times married, choreographed it on his new ballerina Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea to his own Don Q., the unconsummated great new love of his life on stage and off. More than 40 years younger than him, she was the muse who enriched the last 18 years of his work.

Something similar happened to the composer Leos Janácek when, during the last 11 years of his life (1917-28), he fell in love with Kamila Stösslová, 38 years younger than himself.

She the muse; the love unconsummated; a flood of musical compositions released by his feeling for her. Nowhere more so than in his Intimate Letters string quartet, in which (he wrote to her) he broke through for the first time to direct feeling rather than remembered feeling: “Intimate Letters was written in fire.”

In turn, this quartet has prompted other works of art. I have seen two ballets choreographed to it, and in 2003 Brian Friel wrote a short play about its life-and- art intermesh, Performances, now receiving its London premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s a piece of fancy. The protagonist is the dead Janácek: he converses with the living – the string players who will play this quartet and Anezka Ungrova, a young PhD student who is researching his relationship with Stösslová and its particular expression in this quartet. Often, in fact, he doesn’t converse with Ungrova: parts of their dialogue contain so many non- sequiturs that they seem to be on different planes (while she speaks of Stösslová, he talks of other composers). But elsewhere they listen, respond to each other’s expressions, argue. Janácek, brushing aside the evidence of his surviving letters (“Thank God my first language was music”), claims now that Stösslová was an ordinary woman whom he transformed in music; Ungrova, affronted on Stösslová’s behalf, calls him a misogynist, and leaves. Meanwhile the quartet has been playing two movements offstage; the play ends with it on stage, playing the remainder.

The play keeps starting to take off. The main themes here – why an artist needs love and what he does with it – are full of fascination and irony. But Friel doesn’t take them far. And he bogs his play down one way by the fanciness whereby the dead Janácek chats with the living about train times and colds, and the other way with exposition (Ungrova on 1928: “That was a major year, probably your most creative year ever”). Just as well: the Brodsky Quartet respond with terrific lyricism, bite and panache to Janácek’s music but, as directed by Lou Stein, speak their few lines leadenly.

Rosamund Pike, who starred in Terry Johnson’s not dissimilar but far more intricate play Hitchcock Blonde (also 2003), is so physically beautiful as Ungrova that at first she distracts you from the fact she’s miscast and dull. The real acting comes from Henry Goodman as Janácek: slightly over-emphatic throughout (as so often ), but driving the play surely along. The production (memorable anyway because Wilton’s Music Hall is so attractively unique an auditorium) is an event simply because its climax is Janácek’s own music: Friel’s dialogue says “vita brevis” and lets the music say “ars longa”. ★★★☆☆

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