Set in Vienna in the spring of 1986 Old Wicked Songs explores the relationship between a student and teacher. In this case it is a pianist who is forced to study singing with an unknown teacher if he wishes to continue his studies with his chosen professor. The characters have trouble communicating with each other but have a common ground in music.
The complex themes of this play by Jon Marans encompass politics, prejudice and secrets. David Roach is completely believable as Professor Josef Mashkan, passionate about his music and secretive about his past. Ben Francis plays Stephen Hoffman with all the impatience and petulance of youth, irritated by the delay in achieving the studies he wants and suspicious of the older man he suspects of anti-semitism. All is set against the backdrop of the 1986 Austrian Presidential elections and the controversy that surrounded Kurt Waldheim, a candidate and former Nazi. The crux revolves around Hoffman’s visit to Dachau, a former concentration camp and his subsequent anger.
The subject of the singing lessons is the song cycle by Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), which contains the words of Heinrich Heine, a series of poems that chart the psychological development of the poet through his relationships. Consequentially the music is a pivotal part of this play and hence the importance of the real pianist, Mark Sandon. The smooth transitions from live to recorded music were beautiful and Sandon’s playing, representing both musicians was excellent.
The set had the usual attention to detail that we have come to expect from Independent. Making the small stage in the Goodwood theatre seem larger than it is and enhanced by Bob Weatherly’s lighting. Rob Croser’s masterly direction gives both Roach and Francis the chance to develop their characters and deliver a very balanced production. This is strong complex play and you would be foolish to miss it.
Permission for reuse by Glam Adelaide
Reviewed by Fran Edwards