Touching many curious bases with this Double Bass

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Me and my fiddle: The Double Bass and its performer, Pieter Bosch Botha. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

Have you ever looked at an orchestra and pondered the back story behind the more monstrous and dramatic of its components? Or even the not-so-monstrous, but instruments which might be completely bizarre to the average Joe.  And I’m not talking about the ordinary violin or sedate flute.

What of the chap who plays the triangle? Do you think he had a calling to do so? Do you think the French horn player ever tires of those relentless, intestine-like coils? What about the tuba?

While American entertainer with no equal, Danny Kaye brought immortal life to the lonely persona of the tuba in the sad little sweet narrative song Tubby the Tuba written by Paul Tripp and composed by George Kleinsinger in 1945, Patrick Süskind does something similar for the double bass, in this eponymous one-hander, directed by Alan Swerdlow. Only it’s not for littlies and doesn’t necessarily have feel-good closure.

While the work is long and wordy, with Swerdlow’s nifty treatment of it, and Pieter Bosch Botha’s impeccable performance as a strictly flawed and sad double bassist, it sees a lot of bases getting touched, from sexual innuendo to the hilarity of a love-hate relationship with a really big musical instrument, and there is not one dull moment in this bizarre story.

You may be pushed a little to think of Man Ray’s extraordinary photographs reflecting on the analogy of a ‘cello and a woman’s body, but this, contrary to the image on the programme is a tale less about delicate nuances, than the extremely human act of performing music. It’s also about Brahms and Mozart, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and noise and quietude.

Who composed seriously for the double bass in the classical tradition? What’s the sex appeal of the guy standing upright behind his huge instrument, positioned in a kind of a blind space in the natural sequence of the orchestral layout? Is it incestuous? There’s a foray into Freudian hilarity as there is a reflection on the artisanal nature of a musician who plays the work of others.

The Double Bass is a production which will not be everyone’s cup of tea – given its unashamed and unapologetic focus on European classical music traditions, but it brings together a thoughtful pared down level of style with pragmatics and humour that will make you laugh and cry, at times. We get a taste of the history of the instrument; of the history of music around it and of the socio-cultural nexus in which this hapless performer exists, but the production is never allowed to skitter into the dull terrain of a lecture.

Bosch Botha’s performance is direct, slightly crude and not a tad pretentious. You realise the pathological predicament of the poor character and cannot help but collapse into peals of empathetic laughter at the monstrosity of the thing, which, like a giant violin unrelentingly dominates the space, listening and judging everything that transpires, even with its ‘face’ turned to the wall.

  • The Double Bass is written by Patrick Süskind, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Pieter Bosch Botha, with set and lighting by Denis Hutchinson and is at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 14: 011-883-8606, http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za
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