In Bed with Schoenberg

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

25/02/2023 - 17/03/2023

Production Details

By Dave Armstrong
Directed by Conrad Newport
Musical Director: Donald Armstrong (Associate Concertmaster NZSO)

Presented by Armstrong Creative

With music by Bach,Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Lehar, Schoenberg and more

Eccentric Austrian composer meets live string quartet.

Self-confessed genius Arnold Schoenberg has taken to his bed in 1951 Los Angeles believing that this will be his last day alive. The clock is ticking toward midnight. His numerology is never wrong.

Struggling in an unappreciative Hollywood, Arnold reflects on an earlier life of fame filled with glorious Viennese music and where his modern compositions caused riots, where friends and lovers constantly betrayed him and where a failed ‘artist’ became Führer and forced his unwanted exile.

In Bed with Schoenberg is a delicious Viennese pastry filled with comedy, drama and exquisite live classical music.

Developed from an original commission by Chamber Music New Zealand.


Sadly, due to unforeseen circumstances, the wonderful Andrew Laing is unable to continue in his role in In Bed with Schoenberg. However, we are delighted to announce that Gavin Rutherford will be stepping in as eccentric Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

This is not the first time Gavin has worked with director Conrad Newport and playwright Dave Armstrong. Gavin starred in Dave’s hit comedy Le Sud directed by Conrad, which played two sold-out seasons in Wellington and toured the country.

Gavin will share the stage with a phenomenal string quartet led by Donald Armstrong (associate concertmaster NZSO), with Sophie Bird (violin), Sophia Acheson (viola) and Brenton Veitch (cello).

In Bed with Schoenberg – RNZ Interview with writer Dave Armstrong

Circa One
25 Feb – 17 Mar 2023
$35 ‘Preview’ Fri 24 Feb & $35 ‘Sunday Special’ Sun 26 Feb
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm,
Fri – Sat 8pm,
Sun 4pm
$30 – $55
Book Now!

Starring Gavin Rutherford as Arnold Schoenberg
Donald Armstrong (MD, violin)
Sophie Bird (violin)
Sophia Acheson (viola)
Brenton Veitch (cello).

Theatre , Music ,

1hr 10 mins (no interval)

Darker notes of a contradictory life

Review by Max Rashbrooke 27th Feb 2023

It is 11pm on July 13 1951, and the famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, lying in bed at his Los Angeles home, feels himself near death.

Casting his mind back over his past, he narrates a life devoted to pioneering a particular kind of classical music – and to clashing with anyone who gets in his way.

The setting for these reminiscences is simple: behind a bed, large metallic panels hang in rows, an apparent nod to the highly ordered nature of Schoenberg’s compositions. But their surfaces are mottled and bulging, as if distorted by the passions that constantly break through the composer’s own composure. [More]


Make a comment

Universal themes of being misunderstood, underappreciated and displaced resonate amid the comedy

Review by John Smythe 26th Feb 2023

Marketed as “a delicious Viennese pastry filled with comedy, drama and exquisite live classical music”, In Bed with Schoenberg, Dave Armstrong’s collaboration with musical director Donald Armstrong, produced by Caroline Armstrong and directed by Conrad Newport with Gavin Rutherford as Arnold Schoenberg, delivers on its promise.

In this centenary year of Katherine Mansfield’s death, it feels relevant to note they both broke new ground in their arts practice in the early 20th century, although Schoenberg’s longer life (76 yrs) straddled Mansfield’s much shorter one (34 yrs). Mansfield was inspired by Fauvism; Schoenberg was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and lead the Second Viennese School. But while Mansfield’s talent was recognised in her lifetime, Schoenberg’s works were labelled ‘degenerate’ by Hitler’s Nazi Party because he was Jewish. Fortunately his appointments to teaching positions in the USA, settling in Los Angeles to teach at UCLA, allowed him and his family to remain – with many other Jewish émigrés of note.

Initially Schoenberg’s songs and string quartets were influenced by Brahms and Wagner, regarded as polar opposites. It was in the first decade of the 20th century that he abandoned traditional keys and tonal centres to explore free atonality and in the 1920s that he discovered the twelve-tone method, in which the twelve pitches of the octave are regarded as equal, and no one note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. 

It may seem odd for Dave Armstrong, a consummate playwright of popular comedies, to be drawn (by his older brother Donald, Associate Concertmaster NZSO) to material like this. But music is in the family. As a trumpeter, Dave met violinist Caroline in the 1983 New Zealand National Youth Orchestra. Their many theatrical collaborations have included King and Country, which involved a live brass brand on stage, and Rita and Douglas, about painter Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn, which featured pianist Michael Houstoun playing Lilburn’s piano music.

Even so, as an artist, Dave Armstrong is the polar opposite of Schoenberg, who scorned composers who wrote music people wanted to hear. And therein lies the comedy.

We meet Schoenberg on his deathbed, on Friday 13 July 1951, aged 76. Note, 7+6=13. Schoenberg is triskaidekaphobic, believes in astrology and pronounces himself a great composer. After the splendid String Quartet – Donald Armstrong (MD & violin), Sophie Bird (violin), Sophia Acheson (viola) and Brenton Veitch (cello) – opens the play with his atonal String Quartet No 1, Rutherford’s Schoenberg declares, “My music is not modern, it is just played badly!” Yet he’s all too aware he has the talent to empty a concert chamber within three bars.

The tone is thus set for a highly subjective survey of his life and music, inter woven with exquisitely rendered selections from his works and those of others: Puccini, Schubert, Gershwin, Lehar, J Strauss II, Mahler, Leopaldi, J S Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and his favourite students from his Viennese School, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Apparently Schoenberg’s teaching was traditional, steeped in ‘the greats’ who preceded him, but many of his students were influenced by his works outside the classroom.

Schoenberg’s love-hate relationships with Vienna, L A, some of his local compatriots and himself, informs much of the humour. His personal life – marriage to his longtime teacher’s sister, Mathilde Zemlinsky, especially – produces drama and tragedy as well as comedy.

Gavin Rutherford traverses the emotional and intellectual terrain of the play with impressive skill – accentuated by his having stepped into the role some 12 days before this opening night (when, due to unforeseen circumstances, Andrew Laing was unable to continue). A judiciously placed music stand and Rutherford’s long history of participating in Circa play readings, allows him to refer to a script almost imperceptibly, more so in the final stretch of his 70 minute monologue. As the season progresses, he will undoubtedly find deeper connection with this part of the play, which currently comes over as relatively expositional. Nevertheless his multi-layered Schoenberg serves Armstrong’s multi-layered text superbly.

The set and lighting design, by William Smith of Tungsten Projects, offer yet another layer of performance. The large square panels on the upstage wall initially resemble baffles in a recording studio, but they are metal and randomly bashed and contorted from behind to produce contours that are variously expressive according to the changing angles and colours of lights. We may interpret them differently at different moments. My impression is that they are holding back real people trying to break through the judgements of others.

Despite the specificity of In Bed with Schoenberg, or rather because of it, its Universal themes of being misunderstood, underappreciated and displaced resonate as relevant to much of humanity – especially within their inner thoughts and feelings, where this excellent play resides.

Wikipedia, to which I’m indebted for much of the above, includes this intriguing paragraph:

“He lived [in L A] the rest of his life, but at first he was not settled. In around 1934, he applied for a position of teacher of harmony and theory at the New South Wales State Conservatorium in Sydney. The Director, Edgar Bainton, rejected him for being Jewish and for having “modernist ideas and dangerous tendencies.” Schoenberg also at one time explored the idea of emigrating to New Zealand. His secretary and student (and nephew of Schoenberg’s mother-in-law Henriette Kolisch), was Richard Hoffmann, Viennese-born but who lived in New Zealand in 1935–1947, and Schoenberg had since childhood been fascinated with islands, and with New Zealand in particular, possibly because of the beauty of the postage stamps issued by that country.”[38]


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council