Theatre Review: Low Frequency Thrills, Or Bass To Basics

February 24, 2015



The Double Bass / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton


The Double Bass, written by German author Patrick Suskind, is, in its Johannesburg incarnation, very clearly a three-hander. There’s only one actor – the excellent Pieter Bosch Botha, who spends the entire show on stage and only slightly less than all of that time talking – but his interpretation of Suskind’s musings on the nature of loneliness, ambition, naivete and talent provides only part of the entertainment.

Everything takes place in a single room, with Botha moving just a couple of metres between his sound system, a chair, a window and wherever his double bass is at the time. Keeping that compact set of actions interesting requires maintaining a sort of static dynamism and clever timing, which is at least as much the result of director Alan Swerdlow’s efforts as it is due to the skill of his protagonist.

The third important player is lighting and set designer Denis Hutchinson, who creates a marvel out of limited space and a fixed point of visual reference. The unnamed bass player’s apartment is inspired by the structure of a music stand, replete with a set of sheet music. It’s a standout image that remains as effective throughout the show as it is when you enter the theatre.

Botha’s character is a friendly, accessible sort who speaks directly to the audience – which appears to be confusing to some members of the audience, who occasionally answer his rhetorical questions. He is clearly a man steeped in his craft, spouting reams of detailed information about classical music that is fascinating for anyone with any sort of interest in the alchemical mixture of science and soul that results in a symphony or part thereof.

Early on and for around two-thirds of that piece, that detail and Botha’s assured delivery – in a brilliant and wonderfully sustained German accent – keeps The Double Bass ticking over well. Bosch manages to foster an amazing level of intimacy for a single man talking to a room full of people, and Suskind’s script slowly reveals layers of an individual who has a number of high-level skills and works in what is often considered a glamorous industry, but who is not as put-together as his public image suggests.

His instrument, a lovely if rather heavy-handed metaphor for something that is both beautiful and cumbersome, takes the blame for the musician’s shortcomings, including his difficulties in connecting with the object of his affection – another member of his company. This subject matter is explored in more detail towards the end of the play and, like the sustain on a low E, the piece as a whole goes through something of a slow fade. It doesn’t end with a whimper, but it doesn’t go out with a bang, either, and there may be a faint sense of regret on leaving the theatre, as the foundation has been so well laid and the single character so well developed, at the lack of an anticipated spark at the end.

Is that just the famously irascible Suskind having a poke at his audience?