Review: 33 Variations, Comedy Theatre

Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Golden Star winning actress Ellen Burstyn makes her Australian stage debut, a centrepiece of the show whose ensemble cast is equally adept at holding up the scaffolding.
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Ellen Burstyn in 33 Variations. Photo by Lachlan Woods.

Those unfamiliar with the central conceit of Moisés Kaufman’s play, and particularly young audiences not au fait with classical music, may wonder how the subtle nuances of a particular Beethoven work could possibly appeal to the modern sensibility, and yet this new production of 33 Variations is a triumph that will resonate with all ages, regardless of knowledge (or lack thereof) of 19th century musical exposition. The play is many things: a musical mystery, a deeply affecting meditation on mortality, an exploration of the push-pull relationship of mother and daughter and a reflection on the power of art to illuminate and transfigure.

The Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Golden Star winning actress Ellen Burstyn makes her Australian stage debut, a centrepiece of the show whose ensemble cast is equally adept at holding up the scaffolding. Burstyn plays a terminally ill American music scholar, Katherine Brandt, obsessed with trying to figure out why Beethoven devoted so much of his life to tinkering with a seemingly trifling waltz by his Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. The 33 variations of the title is the number of different iterations eventually settled upon by the composer.

The cast of 33 Variations.  Photo by Lachlan Woods.

Despite her increasing illness and much to her daughter’s chagrin, Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany and settles in among the archival manuscripts trying to write her final monograph. Throughout the show Burstyn is in utter dramatic control, revealing the craftsmanship and mesmering stage presence of someone whose career has spanned six decades: the manner in which the once renowned musicologist descends into physical disrepair is heartbreaking. As her daughter, Clara, Lisa McCune is engaging and captures the frustration of trying to care for someone whose single-minded ambition seems to override all other responsibilities.

The composer and the scholar share the same mulish stubbornness and the brilliance of the play shows in synchronicity, the failing health and eventual deafness of Beethoven himself, transposing time and place so there’s a moment or two when Katherine and Beethoven share the same space (even if in hallucination). As the cranky composer William McInnes’ performance is wonderful: a pure joy to witness his shambolic, imperious and egotistic self-harrumphing as he scolds his loyal assistant Anton Schinder (Andrè De Vanny). The rest of the cast also acquit themselves commendably: the Beethoven curator Dr Gertrude Ladenburger (Helen Morse), Clara’s love interest/Katherine’s nurse, Mike Clark (Toby Truslove) and composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli (Francis Greenslade).

The cast of 33 Variations.  Photo by Lachlan Woods.

Within the simply wrought but effective stage design, a piano is in direct sight whereby various fragments of the variations are played with feeling by Andrea Katz. Directed by Gary Abrahams, 33 Variations is in Melbourne for a limited run; this meld of drama and music will move and transport you.

Rating: 5 stars ★★★★★

33 Variations
Written by Moisés Kaufman
Presented by Cameron Lukey & Neil Gooding Productions
In association with Ellis Productions
Director: Gary Abrahams
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Lisa McCune, William McInnes, Helen Morse, Andrè De Vanny, Toby Truslove and Francis Greenslade
Piano: Andrea Katz

7-24 March 2019
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

Thuy On
About the Author
Thuy On is Reviews Editor of Artshub and a freelance arts journalist and critic. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in March 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press.