In 1964, Rosemary Brown, a forty-eight-year-old widow, received a visitor to her sprawling terraced house in Balham, South London – Hungarian composer Franz Liszt who had died seventy-eight years earlier. Liszt, it seems had a favour to ask of the suburban housewife: would she mind jotting down a few tunes he had not managed to complete during his lifetime. Mrs Brown, who was not a musician, naturally agreed. Well, word got round and in no time at all the likes of Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, the Schumanns, Grieg, Debussy et al and, rather incongruously, John Lennon, were passing through, literally, all of whom still had great works that needed composing.
This is a well-known story that has been around since the widow’s death in 2001 and Swiss writer and director Thom Luz has created a performance entitled When I Die: A Ghost Story with Music. Now, whether this was his idea or whether Mrs Brown had any involvement and input in the writing is not clear.
The result was a highly enjoyable and very quirky evening’s entertainment. The huge empty stage of the Rotterdam Schouwburg was lined with a selection of vintage keyboard instruments including a wonderful Fender Rhodes electric piano and a glass harmonica. The piece opened with a grey haired Rosemary Brown, nicely played by Suly Röthlisberger, tinkling at an old upright piano only to find her little tune being mysteriously echoed. The spirits of the great composers, and that of her late husband, were played by four young(ish) men, half of whom had beards, in smart dark grey suits. They sang, played a variety of musical instruments and got up to mischief. The only way Mrs Brown could control them was by smashing a glass or piece of china.
All great fun and there were some really excellent theatrical moments, one being when a glass door was being wheeled around the smoke-filled stage. I also liked the old, floor-standing wooden-boxed television on which some of the action took place. The only issue was that the performers were not miked and consequently it was sometimes difficult to hear what they were saying. But then I spotted a tiny programme note which said, “Low Volume Warning. This production may feature volume levels that are barely audible.” They probably use telepathy in the spirit world.
It is also worth mentioning the extravagant 95-page programme/book which alone was worth the price of the ticket. It contained a comprehensive glossary of spiritual and other relevant terms, some old American magazine adverts and, most interesting, Rosemary Brown’s own handwritten impressions of the dead composers she worked with – Schubert was, apparently, a very beautiful man; Beethoven was a mystery to her; Debussy had a pale complexion and John Lennon was reserved but kind. Not only entertaining, instructive as well. Michael Hasted 24th May 2018