At one point in Peter Ustinov's play Ludwig van Beethoven, having somehow returned to the modern world, offers a critique of a young composer's symphonies and dismisses them as shallow and insipid. It is a cheap shot to turn the same words upon Beethoven's Tenth, but unfortunately it also happens to be true.
Ustinov himself plays the German maestro and is inimitably Ustinov, with all those vocal and physical quirks which he has woven into his style both as an actor and a raconteur – the only vague comparison I can think of would be with Orson Welles trying to impersonate James Stewart. However, the present-day music critic in whose household the great man suddenly materialises also speaks in finely-turned Ustinovian sentences. He is the sort of man who, when delivering what passes with him for a heart-to-heart speech to his composer son, can casually include the phrase "It is indeed deeply regrettable...". Decades of pomposity have accrued upon Stephen Fauldgate like so many rhetorical barnacles; John Neville's skill at making such utterances sound natural is misplaced, as it both deflates the character's insufferable self-regard and attenuates the impact of his final return to a proper sense of perspective.
Yes, it is that sort of play: Beethoven blusters around for a while, eating the Fauldgates out of house and home and (thanks to the miracles of modern hearing-aid technology) listening to his entire oeuvre for the first time, and with the uncanny percipience of the outsider banishes the air of stagnation which has hung over the family. Along the way he engages in debates about criticism and composing, offers a horrified account of contemporary urban life and unites two couples: the Fauldgate parents are revivified after long-term atrophy and their son Pascal decides to leave home with the Austrian au pair. The old curmudgeon also inadvertently conjures up a clutch of ghosts from his own past, for reasons even less adequately explained than his appearance in the first place.
Numerous ideas, both thematic and narrative, are brought into play, but all are covered with the same varnish of well-crafted entertainment; they gloss nicely, but little else. Minor points, such as the imperfections of Beethoven's memory, are recapitulated at length to no discernible end. Moreover, everyone's lines sound like Ustinov's – even those of the Viennese Irmgard. The few gobbets of German in the dialogue are noticeably more vigorous (and much fruitier) than the polished English periods. Joe Harmston's production plays upon the smoothness and evenness of Ustinov's script rather than either accentuating the few knots which remain or trying to hint at those which have been eradicated. A play founded upon such divergent temporal and cultural viewpoints could be so much more than this. Like Pascal Fauldgate's symphonies, it does not aspire to any magnitude. Ustinov, like Pascal, may retort that he writes for audiences – but audiences appreciate magnitude too, otherwise Beethoven would not be remembered well enough to have inspired this play.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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