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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
The essential ingredients were there - a celebrated actor, Antony Sher in the title role, Gregory Doran, a noted Royal Shakespeare Company director and Ronald Harwood, the playwright who wrote The Dresser. Mahler's Conversion should have been memorable and it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Some of the writing seems to invite cheap laughs and the characterisation of the female roles is one-dimensional.
The play centres on Mahler's career as a famous conductor, his fame as a "late romantic" composer came mostly after his death. In 1897, in a career move, Mahler realised the necessity of his converting from Judaism to Catholicism in order to qualify for the top conducting post at the Vienna Court Opera. The secondary theme of Harwood's play is Mahler's ten year marriage to Alma Schindler, a young beautiful woman, nineteen years his junior and the daughter of an actress and a painter. After Mahler's death, Alma, who also composed, married Walter Gropius the Bauhaus architect and later the writer Franz Werfel and had liaisons with the painter Oskar Kokoschka and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.
Harwood's fictitious play takes as its springboard Mahler's decision to convert but aims to show that he never lost his Jewish roots which are reflected in his evocative musical composition. Mahler's name-dropping friend "Sigi", Siegfried Lipiner (Nickolas Grace) urges Gustav to follow his own example and become a Catholic. Sigi cites, "A cousin of mine has just become a Protestant, but he wasn't very ambitious!" The play details Mahler's conversations with a Catholic priest, Father Swider and later with Sigmund Freud whom he consults about his failing marriage, both parts are played by Gary Waldhorn. In between Mahler meets and marries Alma (Fiona Glascott) having discarded his opera singer mistress, Anna von Mildenburg (Anna Francolini). Nathalie Bauer-Lechner is a hanger on, a loyal Mahler fan, a woman in men's clothing whose main function seems to be to descend into poverty and say, "How can such a great composer be such an indifferent human being?" Wasn't that Salieri's complaint about Mozart in Shaffer's Amadeus?
Antony Sher looks very much the part. Maybe his physique is more sturdy than Mahler's but facially, he bears a remarkable resemblance. His delivery is very studied, with lines sometimes spoken as if he were reading poetry, but he does convey the composer's irascibility. A scene where Mahler conducts his prize orchestra is outstanding but then Sher was tutored for this by conductor Simon Rattle.
Nickolas Grace's Lipiner simply lolls around, relating witty encounters with the famous, like an Austrian Oscar Wilde. Anna Francolini's namesake is simply dreadful as she throws herself on to the chaise longue having histrionics. "Cheap theatrical rubbish!" she says. Exactly!
Fiona Glascott l is a ravishingly Alma, with glorious costumes, but she has to deliver some of Harwood's most unfortunate lines. When Mahler reprimands her for sucking her thumb, she retorts with "What else should I suck?" It's hard to believe that this Alma who grew up among the rich and the cultured and who made three brilliant marriages, could be such a vulgar and indiscreet wife. Gary Waldhorn does well with his dual roles as father confessor mark one: priest and father confessor mark two: Sigi Freud.
Of course, there is Mahler's lovely music. I also loved Stephen Brimson-Lewis's impressionist, cloud swirling sets, (The models for the sets can be seen at hey are on the website at www.mahlersconversion.com). An early thunder storm reflects Mahler's inner turmoil. In the baptism scene, as the holy water from the font is sprinkled on Mahler's head, the lighting turns red, convincing me that he is being received, not into heaven, but hell. This same red lit scene closes the play and sees Sher as the old Mahler now burdened with impotence, heart disease, the loss of a child and an unfaithful wife, walk into the distance as the homeless Jew condemned to wander the earth.