When is a work of genius complete? How does one let go of life when there’s so much still to be done? These questions intertwine in Moisés Kaufman’s play about the composition of Beethoven’s 33 Variations and, more importantly, the contemporary study of this monumental work by a musicologist with a fatal illness. Previously played by Jane Fonda on Broadway in 2007, this character is interpreted by another celebrated American actress, Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, in a pitch-perfect local production.

Ellen Burstyn, 33 VariationsEllen Burstyn in 33 Variations. Photo © Lachlan Woods

33 Variations centres on musicologist Katherine Brandt who, despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, travels to Germany to further her research into what are popularly known as the Diabelli Variations. She pores over Beethoven’s sketches for this composition, trying to understand why he accepted music publisher Anton Diabelli’s invitation to write a variation on his simple waltz. Why did he write one, let alone 33?

Katherine is assisted by the Beethoven archive’s gatekeeper, Gertrude Ladenburger. Eventually her daughter, Clara, also travels from America to help her mother, though their relationship is strained. Mike, a nurse briefly seen initially meeting Katherine for some medical tests, also comes to Germany to continue her care, as well as nurture his budding relationship with Clara.

33 VariationsFrancis Greenslade, Andre de Vanny and William McInnes in 33 Variations. Photo © Lachlan Woods

Weaving through this modern-day story of imperfect relationships and historical and musical detective work, are scenes from the variations’ troubled composition between 1819 and 1823. Through failing health, lack of income and Diabelli’s forlorn requests for something to publish, Beethoven writes variation after variation, raging at all around him, including his long-suffering assistant, Anton Schindler.

Excerpts from what Beethoven finally handed to Diabelli are brilliantly played live on stage by pianist Andrea Katz, revealing the variations’ many finely honed moods, and also enhancing the varied moods of the play itself. From the bombast and broad gestures of the historic scenes’ almost comical melodrama, to the wit and cute moves of modern romantic comedy, and moments of naturalistic tenderness and grief, 33 Variations covers a lot of territory. Under the direction of Gary Abrahams, the cast deftly shifts from mood to mood, particularly those playing the more nuanced contemporary characters.

Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn and Lisa McCune in 33 Variations. Photo © Lachlan Woods

Burstyn wholly inhabits the character of Katherine, gradually shifting from the upright, determined bearing of a successful academic, through the shuffling steps, slurred speech and primal fear of a woman whose body is shutting down. Lisa McCune is also outstanding as Clara, precisely because she doesn’t allow her character to stand out. She’s an ordinary woman, tentative about a new relationship, uncertain in her career, at odds with a mother who is confident in her own course until this moment. McCune’s scenes with Burstyn are ripe with unspoken meaning, while her chemistry with Toby Truslove, playing Mike with delightful goofiness and sincerity, is also one of the production’s cornerstones. Helen Morse is excellent as Gertrude, the reserved but kind Beethoven scholar.

Adding to 33 Variations’ embarrassment of Australian acting riches is William McInnes, a big, tall embodiment of Beethoven’s imposing genius and confronting manner. His rages (intentionally) border on farce, but McInnes also reveals a softer side of the artist, especially when the two time periods, having increasingly reflected then bled into one another, finally merge briefly. Another much-loved veteran of Australian stage and television, Francis Greenslade, plays Diabelli with a sweet mix of exasperation and sympathy, as does Andre de Vanny – with an extra dose of devotion – in the role Schindler.

33 Variations33 Variations. Photo © Lachlan Woods

Dann Barber’s set has a simplicity that is both practical and elegant. Creamy, handsomely lit classical architecture wraps around the stage, with a balcony-like upper level enabling many of the historic scenes to merge seamlessly with the present. A multitude of big double doors allow easy entrances and exits, as well as offering glimpses of an amorphous, atmospherically lit world beyond, heightening this time-travelling play’s sense of art and human relationships having an anywhere, anytime quality.

Barber also designed the audio-visual elements: modest screens that occasionally drop down to identify which variation is being played, or present real-time video of the action from above. Chloe Greaves’ costumes neatly express period and character, from Beethoven’s massive coat to the uncertain Clara’s ever-changing array of delicate, often colourful outfits.

It’s extraordinary that an independent production has managed to coax Burstyn to Melbourne, gather such a high-calibre Australian cast, and put together all the other elements that do justice to Kaufman’s clever, insightful and sensitive script. It has a limited season, and there’s no word of 33 Variations travelling to other cities, so hurry to catch this theatrical gem.


33 Variations is at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until March 24

Tickets