Pros: A potted history of artistic life in early 20th century Vienna, seen through the eyes of a 21st century writer. Music, architecture, art and psychoanalysis. From Freud to Jung, Klimt to Kokoschka, they all get a look in.
Cons: Words get the better of everyone, on and off Sigmund’s couch. If music is the food of love, here both are thwarted in this tale of two composers, one triumphant, the other downtrodden.
Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud meet in Leiden and go for a walk. After just one conversation, Gustav’s flagging passion for straying wife Alma is rekindled. He mends their relationship and acknowledges her as a composer and artist. Just in time: he has very few years left to live.
Extrapolating from documented events, playwright Gay Walley reimagines the Mahlers’ story and weaves in another, told through the conversations of a 21st century couple, a writer and a banker. That relationship also stalls and flounders. The couple’s understanding of each other is at odds with their self-perception. Love seems to endure somehow, bittersweet.
Past and present alternate. Characters come on and off the stage, like figurines taking turns to emerge from their weather house. They declaim word-heavy set pieces and check-list names and ideas. Love, Genius and a Walk is more suited to a radio play than the stage. With so much dialogue to fit in, there is little room for feeling, and even less space to get a sense of time, mood and music. There are nevertheless some strong performances, notably from Benjamin Murray as the pragmatic husband and banker, and Ashleigh Cole in multiple roles including Marie Bonaparte.
The injustice done historically to Alma Mahler during her life seems to be perpetuated in this play. A charismatic and intelligent woman – a person of substance, devastated by the death of her four-year-old daughter, thwarted in her artistic ambition, underestimated, neglected by her husband – is portrayed as a flighty, slight, shallow child bride. She is shown to use a cruel loss, somehow, as an indirect excuse for her infidelity.
No one knows exactly what was said when Freud and Mahler went for a walk. The conversation that is imagined in this play takes a curious turn. The psychoanalyst tells the composer, in a feat of mansplaining once removed, that Alma married Gustav out of some Oedipal impulse, drawn to him by his surname, which reminded her of her father’s profession. Her father was a painter, thus a Maler, from the verb malen, meaning ‘to paint or draw’. Yet Mahler, from the verb mahlen, is also a German word, with very different connotations: it means ‘grinder’.
Author: Gay Walley
Director: Holly Payne-Strange
Producer: Wendy Payne
Box Office: 020 7835 2301
Booking Until: This show has finished its current run.