Edinburgh Fringe 2021
The Dream Train weaves together a quartet of characters with JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a play that has the clarity and strangeness of a particularly convincing dream. Bach is said to have written the Variations to help an insomniac nobleman sleep, and the play uses this story and the structure of his composition, threading the music and text together and slipping between real and dream worlds.
As the Dream Train opens we see 4 separated performers interacting in an elegant Hall of lamp-lit woodwork, their conversations underscored by JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. A mysterious servant (aptly named Goldberg), obligingly plays the piano on command. She also brings the telephone and provides explanations of reality to the elderly “Baron”, who cannot sleep and demands music to sooth him into a dream-state. Elsewhere in the vast Hall, the Baron’s wife Laura, exchanges conversation (and eventually so much more) in a train compartment with a handsome and mysterious young man. Is she real, or is this a jealous husband’s imaginings?
Contemplative and beautiful to watch and hear and as intangible as the music itself, we allow the stories to unfold without trying to hold too tightly to the narrative. Characters fall asleep, and re-awaken to tell their dreams, trysts of poetically scored text take place in the dark, and the audience is lulled to a pleasant somnambulance. The 90-minute performance is shot with cameras and cables exposed, lending a comforting echo of the surreal. Cameras shift focus from armchairs and table lamps, actors purposefully poised with script in hand, and the ever-present piano music is beautifully played by John Harris.
I felt the lull of the atmosphere, and at one point when the wife falls asleep during a train breakdown to the sound of Bach, I started closing my eyes. The pervasive atmosphere became soporific, and I found myself wanting an intermission half way through. While laudable on many counts, a more varied pacing and purposeful build (even obliquely) towards plot-resolution could help keep the audience’s attention properly focused. Beautifully performed by all four actors (especially Sean Hay playing the Baron, and Kirsten Murray playing Laura), and effectively staged at social distance, I found the surreal isolation of characters completely fitting to the ambiguity of realities within the storyline. The performance is cleverly directed using transforming objects; an old-fashioned type-writer percussively tapped becomes Goldberg’s piano, a shaving brush becomes a telephone receiver. The gentle decline of the Baron’s mind seems the most active reality as words are confused, “gay Paris” becomes “gay garree”, “Sisyphus” becomes “syphilis”. By the end of the production we are not sure if we are time traveling, or if we traveling through an aging mind. All possibilities, are enticingly left open, and we are left having experienced an unfolding kaleidoscope of possibilities within the elegant Goldberg Variations. Recommended.