THE TIMES

Thursday April 14th 2011

The Double Bass at the New End Theatre, London NW3

****

Clive Davis

Last updated April 14 2011 3:35PM

 

Here he sits, alone in his sound-proofed apartment except for the instrument he derides as a “fat old woman”. The idea of a one-man play about a musician’s neurotic relationship with his double bass may not seem rich in dramatic potential, but Christopher Hunter’s performance turns out to be nothing short of spellbinding. His voice, and the mournful notes he summons up with his bow, ring in your head long afterwards.

 

Outside of Germany, Patrick Süskind’s name is synonymous with Perfume, a novel awash with the smells, gristle and gore of the 18th century. Admirers of the book — and even readers who found it too precious an exercise in grand guignol — should do their best to catch Michael Hofmann’s translation of the darkly comic piece that established Süskind’s reputation in the early 1980s.

 

Our hero, an anonymous orchestral musician, is preparing for a gala performance of Das Rheingold under Simon Rattle. At the same time he is suffering a middle-aged crisis of confidence: he loathes his career and nurses an unrequited passion for the young mezzo-soprano who is one of the company’s rising stars. How can he catch her attention? Should he revolt against the monotony of his craft?

Hunter takes us on a tour of the repertoire and the innermost recesses of a mind befuddled by too much practice and too many glasses of wine. Under Andrew Jarvis’s unfussy direction, he roams his domestic prison — economically designed by Lara Booth — with the barefoot grace of a stalker. I hate to use that cliché “Kafkaesque” but the monologue does have some of the obsessive, claustrophobic quality of tales such as A Hunger Artist. There is a hint of political satire too — the lowly double-bass as a symbol of the humble worker trapped in a rigid hierarchy.

 

A review by Laura Anderson for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Double Bass

New End Theatre    6-24 April 2011

Patrick Süskind is probably best known in the UK for his novel Perfume. The Story of a Murderer, but his play The Double Bass (written in 1981) was a huge critical and commercial success in his native Germany. So much so that it ran for over 500 sell-out performances. It is a one man show narrated by an unnamed double bassist and explores his isolation, his many frustrations and his complicated relationship with his instrument.

 

Actor/Director Christopher Hunter has had leading roles with the RSC, the National Theatre, the West End and London’s fringe, so it’s no surprise that he makes this slightly neurotic and lonely character likeable, charismatic and a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with. His costume (by designer Lara Booth) is simple and timeless, and his bare feet hint at a vulnerability that manifests itself as the play progresses.

 

The bassist begins by animatedly explaining the history and importance of the double bass, managing to impart many musical facts while still being engaging and interesting. His love of his craft really shines through, and with expressive hand gestures and body language the emotions of this character are made very clear without being over the top.

 

The play takes place in the protagonist’s soundproofed music room, and the set (also by Booth) is minimalist – all in beige and black – so as not to distract from our two central characters, the bassist and his double bass. In the bare room where the only furniture is a boxy armchair, the bass dominates the set just as it does the bassists life. This focus is highlighted by Lighting Designer Andy Furby when he spotlights the bass at the start of the play. The bassist swings from utter devotion to his instrument, describing a time when he gave it the coat off his back to protect it when it was raining, to wanting to smash it to bits. Hunter really interacts with the bass. At times he turns angrily away from it with his arms crossed, but at other times lovingly caresses it to the point where he has to apologise to the audience.

 

Though he seems happy and contented to begin with, notes of discord start to appear as the story goes on. A glass of wine is constantly in his hand or nearby, bitterness about the hierarchy of the orchestra and the status of the double bass within it creeps in, and his secret yearning for a soprano named Sarah is revealed. He tells us that he is often alone. Hunter manages to skilfully manipulate the audience so that we gradually realise that all is not well in his world.

 

The Double Bass manages to be funny without poking fun at its protagonist, which makes  tragic and earnest moments all the more poignant. The modern touches to the translation (by Michael Hoffman), like urging the audience to look up musical facts on Wikipedia, add to the humour and reminds us that this story is still relevant. A story of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams is one that most of us can relate to, and The Noontide Sun Theatre Company has produced a though provoking and entertaining exploration of an ordinary man’s experiences of these emotions.

Michael Gray’s Art Blog

 

THE DOUBLE BASS

The Noontide Sun at the Mercury Theatre Colchester

for The Public Reviews

18.02.11

 

A distant relative of mine [well, Salford] plays double bass for one of the BBC orchestras. He's an enthusiast for his instrument, and plays jazz in his spare time. Very different from Suskind's grumpy musician, though I'm sure he'd enjoy the injokes and the whingeing.

Süskind wrote his original one-act monologue Der Kontrabass in 1980, since when it has proved enduringly popular in continental Europe.

 

Alone in his sound-proof room, this third-desk tutti player introduces us to his instrument. Shiny and curvaceous, it dominates the room, which is otherwise furnished with waffled, angular cardboard furniture. Its owner explains its history, its role in the orchestra, and its repertoire. Something of a joke – fifty concertos, but all by second-rate composers, frustrated bassists. A Mozart trifle. Saint-Saens' Elephant.

 

His other props are a bottle of white wine, and a remote control, with which he plays us extracts, including Brahms, Wagner and the best known of these obscure concertos, by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.

 

But it soon becomes personal. He bitches about the tymps, holds up the orchestra as an image of society, berates his bass, quotes Goethe on music and bemoans his lot: underpaid, stuck at the back of the stage with no hope of advancement. He gets excited, shouts, apologises.

 

The most memorable passages see him fantasising, satyr-like, about the unwitting object of his affections, a soprano called Sarah who is a Rhine Maiden on the stage of the opera in whose pit he scrapes a living. He will disrupt the gala, shout her name in the silence. The piece ends with his putting on his tails and leaving for work. We wonder whether his fantasy will bear fruit.

 

Christopher Hunter is a magnetic performer, holding together a rather rambling narrative, ably suggesting the madness of the orchestral player, and addressing the intimate studio audience directly, making us complicit in his rage and his pathos. His evocation of the Rattle Rheingold gala evening was beautifully realised.

 

Some striking stage pictures, too. Sitting on the arm of his chair and staring at the instrument, before caressing it as he would his beloved Sarah. And the lighting changes as he throws open the window to let the cacophony of the street flood in, or as he walks unsteadily off to the pit at the end.

 

The Double Bass

British Theatre Guide 10th Apri l2011

By Patrick Süskind, translated by Michael Hofmann

New End Theatre

Review by Emma Berge (2011)

When German writer Patrick Süskind wrote Perfume, he described smells with such imagination and accuracy that to read the book is like smelling with your eyes. In his one-man play The Double Bass, which he wrote before the novel, he proves that his gift is not limited to the olfactory.

 

The set is sparse, allowing the double bass to dominate the space. Its player, performed by Christopher Hunter, walks and leaps across the stage and even dances a bit as he describes his relationship with the instrument, gesticulating wildly with his arms as he gets progressively drunker. He starts with a history lesson, reeling off facts and figures in a conversational tone that would make any teacher envious - even those with no interest in music will be interested in all Hunter has to say about the double bass.

 

Throughout the play, Hunter drops in facts and composers, but the play never strays from its human interest story. This is no music lover trying to impress with his endless knowledge; this is a play about how being a bassist has come to define a person.

 

The combination of Hunter and Süskind (with translation by Michael Hofmann) is a marriage made in heaven. Hunter uses Süskind’s words to evoke the atmosphere from the opening of an opera to the claustrophobia of his sound-proofed flat. The hour-and-a-half long monologue uses such wonderful description without ever lapsing into the fanciful; between the two of them, the piece never loses its conversational tone.

 

In the same way, the double bass is a metaphor but without the metaphor ever becoming strained or having too much attention drawn to it. It is subtly woven in so that the bass dominates every part of the bassist's life. Hunter is funny and tragic by turns, going from pride at playing the deepest instrument in the orchestra - ‘bottom E’ he proudly states as he plays for us - to paranoid personification of the instrument as it watches him every time he wants to be alone with a woman.

 

The bassist talks about the woman who he’d like to be alone with - a mezzo-soprano called Sarah who has never looked his way. Whilst adoring her, he also hates her for going to fancy fish restaurants with other men. "Forty-five quid for dover sole!" he rages before proudly stating that, for Sarah, he’d pay fifty. But she’ll never see him, playing at the back of the orchestra on an instrument that he can’t accompany her on. There are only two musical pieces written for soprano and double bass, he tells us before rattling off the composers who have written for double bass, all of them obscure.

 

The Double Bass is about a man stuck in a rut where the security of his job becomes stifling and the sound-proofed room only serves to lock him in with his biggest obstacle. It’s funny, it’s tragic and it’s altogether very human. Whilst eschewing psycho-analysis, the bassist manages to perfectly psycho-analyse himself throughout the course of a bottle of wine. Süskind knows people just as well as he knows music.

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