By John Bakewell & Janine Limberg
Tour de force, tour de role, call it what you may — but Hershey Felder’s mesmerising performance in Hershey Felder – Our Great Tchaikovsky kept the audience enthralled until a well-deserved standing ovation nearly two hours later.
His adoption of a persona of Tchaikovsky covered a gamut of emotions, at times amusing, at other times deeply moving.
If we were in any doubt as to Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, all doubts were expelled in this performance. Felder had sourced some original material which documented Tchaikovsky’s emotional encounters from his time at the School of Jurisprudence, which ended when Tchaikovsky moved to the new Conservatoire in St. Petersburg. These encounters included his relationship with a fellow composer, Edward Zak, a violinist, who at the age of nineteen committed suicide. Tchaikovsky felt this loss very deeply and rumor has it that his overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was inspired by his love for Zak.
As a homosexual in Russia at that time, it would’ve caused enormous damage to Tchaikovsky’s reputation and could have involved a period of incarceration. After his brief marriage to Antonina Miliukova, which lasted for two and a half months, he was in constant fear of being outed. His wife used this fear to shame him into giving her money to support her and her three children.
Felder was thorough in his coverage of Tchaikovsky’s childhood –– a childhood which, by present-day standards, would have ensured that he was given psychological help. He was taken to the School of Jurisprudence at a tender young age and, being torn from his mother as she left him, it must have been deeply traumatic for him. These deep emotions subsequently came out in his music.
Felder was particularly amusing when he adopted other personae. His mimicry of Balakirev put one in mind of a pompous fat man. Similarly, when he introduced Nikolai Rubenstein, his impersonation made one think of a thin, mean-spirited person.
Throughout the evening his performance was peppered with extracts from Tchaikovsky compositions which Felder played at the piano, sometimes solo and sometimes with an orchestral backing track. His playing was most impressive and at times extremely forceful. I did feel that some of the piano interludes went on a bit too long since the narrative was so intriguing. I didn’t want to lose the momentum.
Multi-talented Hershey Felder not only acted, sang, and played the piano, he also designed a stunningly effective set. From the beginning, we were looking at the silver birches outside the Tchaikovsky family dacha. Later on, the back projections were used to great effect during extracts from ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Nutcracker,’ and especially Tchaikovsky’s personal least favourite composition, but most popular, ‘The 1812 Overture,’ where we were regaled with fireworks and the sounds of cannon fire.
At times reverting to himself, Felder filled in the narrative with more fascinating details about Tchaikovsky and then, immediately switched back into character and became Tchaikovsky again.
I was somewhat bemused that no mention was made of Marius Petipa as it was he who was responsible for the detailed instructions which were to be the framework around which Tchaikovsky composed the music for, arguably, three of the worlds most popular ballets.
When Felder first stepped onto the stage he read out a letter of invitation for him to go to Russia and to present this show. He asked the audience whether or not he should take up the invitation. At the end of the performance he produced the letter again, wistfully realising he could not accept the invitation as Russian attitudes toward sexuality were still the same today as they were in Tchaikovsky’s time.
The performance ended with Felder subtly transforming himself into the older Tchaikovsky with a beard and mustache. Altogether, a truly beguiling performance from beginning to end.
Hershey Felder – Our Great Tchaikovsky — Book by Hershey Felder; Scenic Design: Hershey Felder; Lighting & Projection Design: Christopher Ash; Costume Design: Abigail Caywood, Directed by Trevor Hay; Produced by Samantha F. Voxakis, Karen Racanelli, Erik Carstensen with Tom Wirtshafter with Fane Productions.
The Other Palace – 12 Palace St, Westminster, London www.theotherpalace.co.uk
Telephone:0207 087 7900 tickets: £22.50 | £35 | £39.50; Wednesday 27 September through Sunday 22 October