Review: 33 Variations

Ellen Burstyn shines as Beethoven musicologist  

By Lois Maskiell

When Dr Katherine Brandt, a terminally ill Beethoven scholar travels to Bonn Germany to solve the mystery of his celebrated Diabelli Variations, it’s clear how much her deteriorating health is affecting her daughter.

Yes, these women have starkly different natures, yet Moisés Kaufman’s superbly written play allows their conflict and love to unfold amidst an examination of a musical genius.

Moving between 1819 – 1823 and the present day, not only do we encounter Katherine (Ellen Burstyn) in New York and in Beethoven’s archives in Bonn, we also encounter Ludwig himself, his “friend” Anton Schindler and Anton Diabelli.

Scene-stealing Ellen Burstyn plays Katherine in an incredible performance, she’s direct, elegant, commanding and graceful. Her dissatisfaction with her daughter’s waywardness shoots straight to the heart of complicated family ties. Lisa McCune as Clara Brandt adds welcomed warmth, particularly in her unlikely relationship with nurse Mike Clark played by the comical Toby Truslove.

William McInnes’ towering Ludwig van Beethoven is powerfully executed, his grumbling voice meets the quick-witted Anton Schindler (Andre de Vanny) and impatient Anton Diabelli (Francis Greenslade) in many farcical moments – making excellent use of the spiral staircase and mezzanine in Dann Barber’s set.

Helen Morse plays Dr Gertrude Ladenburger to the hilt, she’s utterly convincing as the shrewd librarian entrusted to Beethoven’s sketches.

What begins as a study of work, family and illness leaves familiar ground behind as Katherine edges closer to death and to her connection with Beethoven’s music. In these absorbing, almost sacred moments – which glow under Rachel Burke’s exquisite lighting – the past and present merge.

Pianist Andrea Katz (Opera Australia, Victorian Opera, Sydney Symphony) incredibly performs a selection of the variations and Diabelli’s Waltz on stage. Katz makes a unique and alluring addition to the evening as her music and interaction with the actors weaves throughout the scenes.

How do we accept our fate? How do we resolve discontentment towards loved ones before death? These are the moving questions director Gary Abrahams teases out in a supremely touching and spirited production performed by a stellar cast.

33 Variations plays at the Comedy Theatre until 24 March. Tickets are available online and by calling the box office on 131 61 00.

Photograph: Lachlan Woods