In Bed with Schoenberg
Written by: Dave Armstrong
Directed by: Conrad Newport
Circa Theatre, 26th Feb 2023
Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus
It's Friday the 13th of July 1951 and composer Arnold Schoenberg (Gavin Rutherford) has taken to bed in his Los Angeles home, convinced this is the day he will die. Having been forced to move to the US by the rise of Fascism in Europe, Schoenberg reminisces about his early life in Vienna where his atonal compositions and “horrible music” caused uproar and his students became more successful than him, his struggles in an unappreciative Hollywood, and his often-fractious relationships.
Andrew Laing who was originally cast as Schoenberg had to pull out at the last minute and his role has been admirably filled by Rutherford, who makes the stage his own. Shuffling around in pajamas and silk dressing gown, he is by turns grumpy and self-aggrandising, then vulnerable and undervalued. Coming from the pen of Dave Armstrong, the script was always going to be funny, and Rutherford especially shines in the moments of wry humour. He holds a full audience in thrall from start to finish.
Supporting, but never directly interacting with, Rutherford is a superb string quartet led by Dave’s brother Donald Armstrong on violin. Sophie Bird (violin), Sophia Acheson (viola), and Brenton Veitch (cello) work seamlessly alongside him to play snatches of Schoenberg’s work along with that of other greats, such as Mahler and Mozart. Somewhere Over the Rainbow even sneaks in. This balance between script and music is the play’s great success and brings to vivid life a composer whose work many Kiwis will be unfamiliar with. Schoenberg’s compositions were as eccentric as his personality and it is entirely appropriate to give them equal weight.
A beautifully simple set (William Smith) of bed, music stands, and oblong panels that look like beaten copper is cleverly lit (also Smith) to spotlight actor and musicians. A well-placed side light spectacularly throws half of Rutherford’s face into shadow when he talks about the Holocaust.
Overall, this is a beautifully scripted, played, and rendered production that hits every note.