Aldwych Theatre, London WC2
Opened 2 October, 2001

** Intriguing idea given a cack-handed treatment

Not even Sir Antony Sher can redeem Ronald Harwood's play from the perils of crass historical cliché and armchair psychologising.

It's fascinating to consider whether composer Gustav Mahler felt he betrayed his Jewishness by converting to Catholicism for the sake of his career in the anti-Semitic Austro-Hungarian empire. However, for every telling moment in Harwood's play there is a quarter-hour that is plodding, uninspired and sometimes downright embarrassing. Characters make ludicrous scene-setting speeches describing life in turn-of-the-century Vienna; Mahler's career is entirely reported rather than shown (the much-touted scene in which Sher, having been coached by Sir Simon Rattle, conducts on stage lasts for less than two minutes); Harwood goes the trouble of engineering an encounter with Sigmund Freud (on a park bench!) only to have Mahler dominate the conversation with his trite insights into his search for his own "still centre".

Sher (who has first-hand experience of denying his own Judaism) turns in as solid a performance as he can of such a script, but Gregory Doran's direction cannot find any kind of substance to offer supporting characters played by the likes of Nickolas Grace and Alexandra Mathie. This is a play which delivers only a fraction of what it promises.

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Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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