If your family was a piece of music, what would it be? For playwright Nina Raine, Johann Sebastian Bach and his clan felt like a fugue: a main theme, with variations woven around it. In fact, the musical form of which he was a master formed the basis of her new play Bach & Sons, which opened at the Bridge Theatre this week.
“That really interested me: I thought, it’s just like his family, that they’re all born of Bach. So there’s the main theme. And there’s variations on that theme, like his kids. But the thing about all of these different pieces of music weaving in at the same time is that you can make one sad and one happy. And I thought, it’s just like life, where everything contains its opposite, everyone is a mixture of black and white,” she tells me.
We’re speaking the night after the play’s first preview, in the Bridge’s spacious foyer. Raine, 45, who has written hard-hitting, acclaimed plays on subjects like strained NHS workers and the minefield of sexual consent, was commissioned to write a play about Bach by the Bridge’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, who is directing the production himself. She knew nothing about the composer before writing the play, which she was invited to approach in any way she wanted; she found her way into his story through his family. Bach was married twice and had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood, some of whom - male, obviously - became composers as well.
“One of his sons who I’ve got in the play, Carl, went on to have a much better career than his dad. And another son was very talented but didn’t go anywhere, because he drank and just had no drive, basically,” says Raine. “I thought, that’s interesting to have the sons play off the dad, and what if the son actually knows that, while he’s more successful than him, he’s not as brilliant as his dad? And also: why did Bach find it so hard to play the game? Why wasn’t he better at networking?”
She found herself “fascinated by these family trees”. Looking at dates on gravestones and marriage certificates led Raine to some of the most interesting questions: why did Bach stay abroad for six weeks after his first wife died? What did his children think when he married a much younger woman a year later? And why did the sister of Bach’s first wife stay with the family many years after her death?
Hytner suggested a handful of books, one of which detailed a story about Frederick the Great challenging Bach to write a three-part fugue around an incredibly complicated theme. He managed it, but then the challenge was upped to six parts. “Bach couldn’t do it, so it was a kind of humiliation. And there all these theories that Carl, who was the court composer at the time, had deliberately made it poisonously difficult to turn it into a fugue, in cahoots with Frederick the Great to humiliate his father publicly.”
Raine wrote the play in the first lockdown, and it came to her quickly. She has two young children, and it intensified her focus because she had “four hours a day when my kids were being looked after by a rota of people.” She knew from the beginning that the role of Bach would be played by Simon Russell Beale – a huge and knowledgeable classical music fan. It was hard to piece together first-hand information about the man himself as he didn’t keep a diary or write many letters – and those that he did were mostly sniping complaints about money. “He doesn’t come out of it all that well, he seems quite petty and quarrelsome and a bit pathetic in some ways,” she says. “We know that he liked drinking – his drinks bills are massive. He obviously liked sex, he had all these children. I think he’s kind of a warm family guy, but also incredibly grumpy and short-tempered and quite fiery, so he’s quite foul-mouthed, a temperamental sort of character in the play.”
But he’s seen through the context of his family, which has often been a theme in Raine’s work. “They’re just such great engines for drama, aren’t they? They don’t have to be unhappy, but there’s always tensions and resentments and competitiveness… and love,” she says. Raine herself is from a creative family – her father is poet and critic Craig Raine, her mother is academic and translator Ann Pasternak Slater, and her brother is fellow playwright Moses Raine – which fed into the play. “Coming from a family of writers, we all talk about writing and we all have opinions on each other’s work.”
Resonances between the past and present emerged in the writing – there’s one scene where Bach lays into his son for his more sentimental, snowflake-y musical style – but Raine found writing a historic drama hard. Her previous plays have all been contemporary, tackling social and political issues. “I just realised that I rely massively on contemporary detail and vernacular to fit my style of dialogue,” she says. Jokes about Sainsbury’s were out, but she was conscious that she didn’t want it to feel like a pastiche costume drama.
Speaking of costume dramas, in 2017 Raine was commissioned to write a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – her version is “very faithful, quite spiky” – but it’s trapped in TV producing no (wo)man’s land. “Oh my god! I just wish that would happen,” she says when I enquire. Boo! Surely our nation has never needed a Darcy to pine after more than right now?
During the first lockdown, Hampstead Theatre livestreamed Raine’s play Tiger Country, about the demands on overworked NHS staff. “I watched it again, thinking, ‘I wonder how this is gonna stand up,’ and it felt so relevant. It’s all about people in the NHS saying, ‘we can’t cope, there’s too much going on’.” Raine had a close insight into how difficult the circumstances were for NHS staff; one of her best friends is a GP and had admitted she felt scared to go to work. “I felt really angry with the government for not locking down,” she says. Not knowing the impact the virus would have on children, she decided to take her son out of nursery and lock down a week before the government announced national measures.
When her play Consent opened at the National Theatre, Raine had recently had her first baby. To solve the childcare issues, he ended up being in the play’s first scene, where the script requires a new-born baby. She had another at the end of 2019 - does motherhood make it harder to write? “The thing that gives is your social life. You’re just as productive basically, if not more, because you become very ruthless. But for me, I’ve totally stopped going out, so that’s the way it works,” she says. “You get quite mystical about writing, a bit wanky but ‘will the thoughts still come to me if I’ve got my mind distracted by kids and I’m not getting a perfect night’s sleep..?’. And I was glad that I was able to write – this is the first play I’ve written since having a baby.”
She believes that, even in the post-pandemic recovery, writers will still be able to have the same start as she did. After shopping her debut, Rabbit, around lots of theatres to no avail, she eventually put it on herself at the Old Red Lion in 2006. It transferred to the West End and off-Broadway, and won her the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award. She cites the example of a friend who has just put on a monologue in the basement of a pizza place in Kentish Town; “they just thought, ‘f*** it, let’s do it’, so already people are doing it and the pandemic isn’t even vanquished yet. So I think that will carry on.
“I think the thing that’s really tricky now is if you’re a white male,” she continues. “Getting a play on, I think that’s just really… People, rightly, want to promote other kinds of writing, other voices. And I think that if you’re a white man, it’s gonna be really tough at the moment.” Does she know people who’ve had that experience? “Yeah. Just their agent saying to them, ‘Look, it’s a bit difficult out there at the moment. Maybe you can hold on’.”
But she’s also honest about the fact that playwrights need TV work to subsidise their income. She rates the Papatango Prize, which gives its winners a full production of their play, a showcase that often opens doors to other work. Young writers can sometimes overstretch themselves by taking on a lot of commissions at once because they need the money. “Some people are like this, they can do 10 plays. I don’t have 10 plays in me in one year – I’ve got one every four years, or whatever.”
So what next for a woman who has won awards, bagged more than one West End transfer, and can write a play in the style of a Bach fugue? “I think I’d quite like to direct a film. That makes me feel quite scared… so that’s the thing I should try and do.”
Bach and Sons is at the Bridge Theatre until September 11; bridgetheatre.co.uk