Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The unique setting of Rosslyn Chapel provides the backdrop to a supposed meeting between two of baroque’s greatest exponents, Johan Sebastian Bach, and George Frederick Handel
Although they were born within weeks of each other only 100km apart, these two great German composers never actually met. Handel moved to London in around 1714 and became one of what are widely regarded as the four great English composers, such was his ultimate integration into the Georgian Court. Bach remained in Germany, spending much of the latter part of his life as Cantor of the Thomasschule at Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
But Paul Barz’s play, Handling Bach, poses the hypothesis that they did actually meet one memorable evening over a dinner in Bach’s home town of Leipzig, hosted by the touring Handel. And in the appropriately celestial setting of the Rosslyn Chapel, we eavesdrop on their conversation as these two icons of baroque cut and thrust over their music, their passions and their life-affirming longings.
David Bryer’s translation has been creatively staged by director Bruce Strachen with an in-the-round performance, resulting in an intimate setting in which the audience feels very much part of the interaction between Bach (Simon Tait) and Handel (James Bryce). Bach is portrayed as the generally understated, cerebral composer he is believed to have been, devoted in equal measure to his family and his music. Handel, by contrast, is seen as a man with an ego as great as his music. Handel’s private life (he never married) remains something of a mystery, something that Barz exposes with a degree of subtlety but he was by far the more commercially astute of the two, living in comparative opulence to the impecunious Bach.
Informative, educational and gently amusing, this two hour piece is never less than entertaining, particularly when Schmidt (Andrew Dallmeyer), man-servant and copyist to the flamboyant Handel, is debunking his master with a turn of phrase worthy of the great Edmund Blackadder himself. Strong performances from both Tait and Bryce ensure that what is, for the most part, a cerebral duologue, never flags. Rosslyn Chapel is also a God given gift to producer Simon Beattie who takes full advantage, producing a set resplendent with authentic period furniture and a banquet of the period, all freshly prepared for each performance and served with panache by the long-suffering Schmidt. Top that off with organ and harpsichord interjections from David Brown and Matthew Brown and you have the recipe for an enlightening evening.