How many variations does it take, how many iterations and transfigurations, before a work of mediocrity becomes a work of genius? And what about a life – at what point do the quotidian accretions of living come to represent a person’s entire existence? What does it actually mean to live an extraordinary life? For all our continued obsession with genius, with those among us who break through into ways of thinking and creating the rest of us cannot conceive, we still have scant understanding of how it actually works. Venezuelan/American playwright Moisés Kaufman takes this ambivalence and weaves a very fine and moving drama out of it with his play 33 Variations, which had its première on Broadway in 2009, with Jane Fonda in the main role.
The genius at the centre of this play is Beethoven himself (William McInnes), although he isn’t the central character, or even the play’s primary concern. That would be Dr Katherine Brandt (Ellen Burstyn), a musicologist who has developed a professional obsession with the 33 variations Beethoven wrote on an insignificant waltz composed by the Italian publisher Anton Diabelli (Francis Greenslade). She is determined to understand why such a great composer would ‘waste his time’ obsessing over such a trifle, and resolves to travel to Bonn in order to study the maestro’s notebooks, to get as close to the site of genius as possible.