(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 28 October)
Ronald Harwood’s 2001 play about the composer Gustav Mahler and his ambition to be the director of the Vienna State Opera (then the Vienna Court Opera – Die Oper am Ring) was not a success in the West End, in spite of having Antony Sher in the title role.
It focusses primarily on that ambition – which led to him being baptised into the Roman Catholic Church when it became painfully obvious that no Jew not prepared to deny his cultural and religious heritage would ever even be considered for the post, much less appointed to it. That is followed by the disintegration of his relationships with old friends, his mistress and his wife.
Probably the episodic nature of the script always will tell against Mahler’s Conversion ever being a run-of-the-mill commercial success. But it’s an ideal festival piece, especially for one which nestles next to Norwich Cathedral. Director Chris Bealey has staged it in the round with back-wall projections indicating the various locations and easily arranged white boxes painted with Secession-style black outlines.
Christopher Neal gives a bravura performance as Mahler, his whole being an endless turmoil of musical ideas, sexual and social impatience and, underlying it all, a desire – a need – to belong (and be seen to belong) in both this world and the next. There’s a fine exchange with the priest Fr Swider (Peter Barrow) in which the conscientious catechist is knocked back by Mahler’s desire to be baptised before receiving instruction.
The women in Mahler’s life are distilled into cross-dressing journalist Natalie Bauder Lechner (Ginny Porteous), soprano mistress Anna von Mildenburg (Rebecca Aldred) and eventually unfaithful wife Alma Schindler (Nina Taylor). His most constant, and least self-serving friend is Siegfried Lipiner (David Green). But they are all a little like minor stars in a wider galaxy. That even applies to David Newham’s Sigmund Freud in his encounter with Mahler abroad.
Mahler’s Conversion runs at the Hostry Festival, Norwich until 31 October.