Piotr The Not So Great

Canadian actor, writer and pianist Hershey Felder is well known for his solo musical biodramas, 
the stories of Chopin, Beethoven and Bernstein, and now Our Great Tchaikovsky. It’s a funny old piece, less a play – there is no drama – and more of lecture, which Felder delivers as his Canadian self, slipping in and out of the slightly cod-Russian persona of Piotr Tchaikovsky to perform excerpts – played with more panache than perfectionism – of his greatest hits. Easy listening in every sense.

Rather too easy. And not helped by Disney-style video projections of swirling autumn leaves, flurries of twinkling snowflakes and blurry twirling ice-skaters. At one point Bambi bounded out from behind a snow-filled birch forest, contributing nothing but a blast of saccharine. Still, for those like me who knew nothing much about Tchaik beyond some of the most thrilling music ever written – Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, the Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor – there’s much to discover. I

n spite of his precocious musical talent, the young Tchaikovsky’s parents told him, ‘Music is not for boys.’ Sent off to school 800 miles from his family, desperate homesickness, then a tragic incident when as a carrier of scarlet fever he caused the death of the son of a kindly teacher, were early traumas. Losing his mother at the age of 10 is another. He remembers nothing about her but her beautiful hands and her piano playing. He couldn’t cry. His soulful insistence that ‘my tears come out of my keyboard’ sounds a bit trite from the young composer. He finds comfort in a boy at school who became ‘my angel, my genius, my friend’ and for whom he played the piano.

And with this hint, so begins his confession of the ‘pernicious passions’ and of the guilty secret that haunted the closeted composer throughout his life, pushing him into a loveless marriage and putting him at the mercy of those threatening to out him unless he paid up. He died shortly after conducting the premiere of his Symphony No 6 in 1893, at the age of 53, and contention surrounds whether it was suicide, murder or illness. Bookending the piece is a letter, supposedly written to Felder inviting him to take his much-lauded show to Moscow, which he hopes the play will help him to answer.

At the end, when Felder makes it clear that Russia now remains as homophobic as it was for poor Tchaikovsky 150 years ago, I know what my response would be. But, sketchy, shallow and cliché-ridden as this show is, I got home and listened to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in full – for which Felder certainly deserves much credit.