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BEETHOVEN IN RAPTUS (article first published : 2007-09-24)

Some 25 years ago, South African writer John Burch penned the beginnings of a play about Beethoven and his adopted son Karl which he intended to have staged at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. He only completed the first draft which consisted of a number of monologues but never took the project further.

It would have been fascinating to know how far John Burch would have taken the script from his original draft but this is something we will never know as he has died in the interim period. However, Cape Town’s Artspace director Roy Sargeant decided to take another look at the draft and, with script editing by Ralph Lawson, John Burch’s ideas have finally come to fruition in Beethoven, in Raptus an Artscape production which was recently presented at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival.

Director Arne Pohlmeier has produced an elegant and stylized production which played at Hilton without its usual interval, putting a major load on the shoulders of Graham Weir who plays Beethoven. He gives a highly focused and well-thought out interpretation of the character – hampered only by a too beautifully-styled wig and elegant clothes, far more suited to an appearance at a Court function rather than in the confines of his chaotic and litter-strewn home.

Slack-jawed, passionate and moving at a strange half-trot (which was apparently the composer’s gait), Graham initially had his work cut out getting us to accept the character of desperation that is Beethoven. How cruel must a stroke of fate be to render deaf at the age of 31 a genius musician – the creator of some of the most powerful orchestral and choral music ever written and the most exquisitely tender classical melodies of our time? What kind of music might he have written had he not been deaf, will remain a mystery.

We move briefly into Beethoven’s world of silence as he frantically clangs a bell to summon servants but we hear nothing. Beethoven’s life is further filled with frustration by the antics of his beloved adopted son, Karl. Played with good petulant energy by Brendon Murray, Karl doesn’t have an ounce of inspiration but his one good idea – to allow his gifted uncle to explain his music so that he could explain it to others – fails dismally. How do you explain creative brilliance? Beethoven, it seems, certainly couldn’t and certainly not without contradicting himself.

Looking on at the tempestuous relationship of uncle and nephew/son are three female characters who provide the back-up to the storyline, filling in character details and historical information.

There’s the forthright and stately Countess, a commanding performance by Theresa Iglich, who’s not above taking the young Karl to her bed. Equally as impressive is Robyn Scott as the voluptuous ringleted Madame who spurns Karl’s advances – after all, her heart belongs to Beethoven. Completing the trio is the sprightly Lisa, a young farm girl who often comes in contact with Beetroot Patch (Beethoven) and the Brute (Karl), as she calls them, and she’s not shy of making rude gestures at them. Roshina Ratnam is endearing in this role, offering a fascinating and unexpected denouement to the play.

Having studied Beethoven as a music subject for my final school leaving certificate in Kenya, I found Beethoven, in Raptus a very humorous script with some memorable and refreshing lines such as “A deaf musician is as useful in the marketplace as a gorilla in an orchestra.” What a joy to be able to relax with proper vocal projection and to hear every word, something I’ve come to expect from Artscape productions. The dialogue is punctuated or accompanied by recorded music of appropriate compositions by Beethoven.

The original set by Michael Mitchell apparently includes a stairway kind of design leading to a large square with a black circle, indicating the ear drum. Unfortunately the full set wasn’t able to travel due to logistical reasons so we only had the large square with the circle. Apart from Beethoven’s ill-chosen garb, the costumes were attractive and authentic. – Caroline Smart




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