Love, Genius and a Walk, Etcetera Theatre
Review by Melinda Haunton
This is a story of second chances. I reviewed Love, Genius and a Walk in its raw state a few months back (https://viewfromthecheapseat.com/2018/07/28/love-genius-and-a-walk-bringing-up-the-house-at-ye-olde-rose-and-crown-rosemary-branch-theatre/). There was a kernel of a great story struggling to get out, but it wasn’t there yet, and the play lagged badly at times. It took me two tries to review its second incarnation too (my fault entirely), but I’m very glad to have seen it in the end. Three months later, twenty degrees colder, twenty-five minutes less performance time, and some judicious re-casting – this was a very different audience experience. The cast list remains startlingly in double figures despite the tiny venue, but the company performs more comfortably together, and the stage feels less congested.
The core of the story remains the unhappy marriage of Gustav and Alma Mahler (Lloyd Morris and Chloe Booyens, sharply contrasted and well-rounded characterisation), blighted by his obsessive composing, and her affair with Walter Gropius. The climactic event to which the production moves is Gustav Mahler’s walk/conversation/consultation with Sigmund Freud (a grave Brendan Wyer, who gets some of the zingier lines and performs them entirely straight). Playwright Gay Walley contends the meeting resulted from this marital crisis, and Mahler’s need for advice – the real content of their conversation is unrecorded.
This historical plot is counterpointed by a nameless modern Writer, obsessed with Mahler and unhappily married in her turn, to a financier. The recut play establishes these relationships much more briskly. But it doesn’t lose the Writer’s function as an audience educator: it is she who can tell us why we should care about Mahler, assuming we don’t know when we take our seats. And it is through her passionate absorption in his life and music that we get the best illustration of what pain can come from loving someone who loves their work more.
Elements I enjoyed about the play on first viewing have stayed, and are stronger for losing the padding. There are some blistering lines about marriage, relationships, Freudian theory and the horrors of living with a genius. The much-interrupted central meeting between Freud and Mahler is gloriously funny, while still insightful about the state of mind of both. What has been taken out is mostly speeches on genius, for which great thanks. Removing these has given space to notice and respond to the play’s complex themes. Among them: the way genius is perceived, by spouses, contemporaries and history; the impact of parents on children, and vice versa; and where the money comes from when someone is devoted to their Art. I particularly enjoyed a thread I’d missed last time around, in which the Writer’s banker husband cheerfully opines about the value of her writing, while she points out she doesn’t lecture him on investment portfolios. Some professions seem to invite inexpert commentary – that feels like the playwright speaking, with some feeling.
The briskness of this shortened version occasionally loses something – at least one pair of Mahler family scenes which were previously interleaved with those focused on other characters, now run into one another. That gives the actors rather a speedy switchback of emotions, without a gap for the audience to assume time passing. We have lost more of the Writer than of the Mahlers, and although this is wise in keeping us focused on the A plot, I thought Helen Cunningham’s excellent performance had become constrained in response. A shame, as she now has a great sparring partner in Benjamin Murray as her bitter, antagonistic spouse. But I did greatly enjoy a recast ending which makes the most of Cunningham and Murray, modern suffering rather than historical interest.
It’s good to see productions come back stronger for such major changes. Overall, this is sparkier, tighter and left the audience with plenty to think about.
Love, Genius and a Walk has just finished its second short London run. I’m sure it will be back.