Reviewed by Adam Rafferty

Almost ten years ago to the day, Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations was first staged on Broadway, providing Jane Fonda with a starring role full of fantastic dialogue and emotional range to explore. While we don’t get Fonda in this production, the decade’s delay has been worth the wait to see much-lauded American actress Ellen Burstyn fill the leading role in a truly magnificent performance. 

This is the story of musicologist Katherine Brandt (Ellen Burstyn), who is studying Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a massive set of piano compositions based on an original waltz by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli, who threw down the challenge to composers to create variations on his work. She’s keen to discover why he was compelled to write thirty-three unique variations on such a trivial and commonplace original piece of music. At the same time as she receives a grant to conduct research of the original manuscripts held in archive in Bonn, Germany, Katherine is diagnosed with ALS, also known as Motor Neuron or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  

Her daughter Clara (Lisa McCune), is dismayed to discover her mother’s condition just as she is about to set off on her research trip and does her best to convince her not to go. But Katherine is still in the early stages of the disease’s onset and refuses to be thrown off course as she determinedly pushes towards completing her life’s work before she loses the ability to do so. She instead deflects the discouragement by pushing her daughter, whom she fears is destined for mediocrity as she bounces from one career to another, towards her charming young male nurse Mike (Toby Truslove), who clearly has eyes for Clara.

The trip to Bonn proves fruitful, with Katherine and the delightfully brusque archivist Dr Gertrude Ladenburger (Helen Morse) learning much about how Beethoven (William McInnes) worked through his secretary Schindler (Andre de Vanny), and his fraught relationship with Diabelli (Francis Greenslade). Scenes with these classical figures are played out alongside the contemporary characters as they uncover the secrets of the variations and as Beethoven’s own encroaching deafness parallels Katherine’s illness which progresses more quickly than hoped.   

In response to her deteriorating health, Clara travels to Bonn with Mike to help provide physical therapy for Katherine. The couple’s burgeoning romance develops as the mother and daughter reconcile their relationship.

Burstyn is both the President and Artistic Director of the celebrated Actors Studio; a New York based Drama School noted for its work teaching method acting. This, combined with her sixty-plus years of performance experience, means it’s no surprise that Burstyn delivers a masterclass in emotionally connected acting. At 86 years of age (Fonda was 71 when she played the role), this is no small part or undertaking for an actress, but Burstyn makes use of her additional years of experience to simply add greater colour to the performance.  

While the rest of the cast are all considerable talents in their own rights, it’s apparent that Burstyn’s presence has helped elevate each of the performances around her. McCune in particular gives a beautifully connected portrayal of a woman struggling to find her best life while having a fractious relationship with her mother, whom she is about to lose. McInnes is perfectly irascible as the tortured genius that was Beethoven; a man whose art almost drove him mad. Truslove makes the most of his character’s adorably awkward nature, creating delightful comic moments, and then bringing it right back to pure naturalism in the more poignant scenes of health care. Morse is both a wonderful match and counterpoint to Burstyn, as Katherine’s cool but kind fellow scholar. 

Director Gary Abrahams allows the classical scenes to be played quite broadly, meaning McInnes  Greenslade and de Vanny can deliver larger than life performances that suit neatly the momentous connotation placed upon them by Katherine. Andrea Katz plays Beethoven’s piano compositions live on stage superbly.

Technical designs all live up to the standards set by the excellent performances, with Dann Barber’s elegant set design bringing untold grace to the Comedy Theatre. The single frustration with this production is the uncomfortable fit of the flexibly sized touring set on this stage. It readily reveals the edges of the painted backdrop and full views of backstage are visible through louvered windows and poorly closing doors. It’s an annoying distraction, but a small gripe over all. 

It is wonderful to see an independent commercial theatre production being staged by Australian producers, something that simply doesn’t happen enough. This elegant staging of a beautiful piece of writing deserves to have sell-out houses. It’s both moving and enlightening, while being thoroughly entertaining. Even in March, it’s easy to say that this production has some of the best performances you’ll see on stage this year. Don’t miss it.