Brian Friel's 2003 play about Czech composer Leos Janacek and his final work is 'a thoughtful study of art and the artist'

'You learn so much more just by listening to the music.' So says the character of Leos Janacek in Brian Friel’s 2003 play, Performances, currently showing in a new production at the Great Hall of the Magee campus in Derry~Londonderry.

Czech composer Janacek died in 1928, in his mid 70s. His final work was Intimate Letters, for string quartet. It is a beautiful, stirring piece, both reflective and vibrant, with passages full of life and vitality.

In Performances, we see the character of Janacek (played here by Allan Corduner) after his death. He is not a ghost, however. He is living and breathing, playful and contentious, passionate about his music. The play is set in his music room, where there is a desk and a grand piano.

Behind the piano, foreshortening the stage, is a wall of long, semi-transparent windows.  Janacek doodles at the piano. With him, he keeps a string quartet (here, the Brodsky Quartet). They bicker and prevaricate, practise and play. They amuse him, keep him company.

The play is a conversation between Janacek and Anezka Ungrova, played by Masha Dakic. Anezka is working on her PhD, her thesis being the vital connection between the composer’s final work and his love for Kamila Stosslova, a married woman many years his junior, to whom he wrote hundreds of passionate love letters.

She quotes fully and freely from those letters, convinced that Janacek’s love for the woman – never consummated, and never reciprocated – drove his work. She quizzes Janacek on his feelings; she is firm in her belief that his love was true and that the passion of Intimate Letters sprang from that love, and that without this woman the piece could never have been written.

However, Janacek is dismissive of her proposition. Yes, he wrote those letters and yes, he himself named the work Intimate Letters. But his feelings for the woman were as nothing compared to his feelings for and in the music: it is in the notes and in the voices of the instruments that play them that the true passions and emotions lie.

While they talk and argue, behind the wall of windows, the musicians of the Brodsky Quartet rehearse. The actors are clearly on stage, but the musicians are blurred shapes, and the music itself is not fully formed. Unable to bear Janacek’s conclusion, Anezka leaves, the letters intact but her proposition in tatters.

She is distraught but Janacek can do nothing for her. He has told her the truth, and there is no more to be said. Anezka now moves to behind the glass, and she becomes blurred and indistinct. The musicians come to the stage, and play the beautiful final movement, the Allegro, powerful and defiant.

This, for me, is where the play comes alive. Appropriately so, given the content of the discussion we have just heard. The artist’s life is not the artist’s work. Look to the work alone. Don’t bring your assumptions and theories to the art.

The music, or the poetry, or the paintings – or the plays – live on, while the body crumbles. Janacek composed Intimate Letters while his body was failing him, and yet it gives no sense of frailty or fragility.

Performances is an interesting and diverting play, a thoughtful study of art and the artist, and ageing too. Directed by Adrian Dunbar, the staging is both simple and subtle. Allan Corduner, as the dead composer, is full of twinkling vigour and conviction, refusing to compromise his beliefs. Masha Dakic, meanwhile, grows into her role. This is a two-hander – the dialogue between the composer and the student. 

The musicians have lines too, though. The first violin talks of a visit to the dentist; the cellist offers to make coffee or do some DIY; there is banter between the viola and the second violin. Their acting is clumsy, a little wooden and self-conscious.

At first I found that this detracted from the play a little. But maybe, in fact, it adds to it, helps the point of the play. Banal, petty and prevaricating and human in life, they transform, in and through art, at one with their instruments, to create something sublime and beautiful. They stop being people and become instruments of transcendence. You learn so much more just by listening to the music.

Performances runs in the Great Hall at Magee until February 23. Tickets are available via the Millennium Forum website.