When is a work of genius complete? How does one let go of life when there’s so much still to be done? These questions intertwine in Moisés Kaufman’s play about the composition of Beethoven’s 33 Variations and, more importantly, the contemporary study of this monumental work by a musicologist with a fatal illness. Previously played by Jane Fonda on Broadway in 2007, this character is interpreted by another celebrated American actress, Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, in a pitch-perfect local production.

Ellen Burstyn, 33 Variations Ellen Burstyn in  33 Variations. Photo © Lachlan Woods

33 Variationscentres on musicologist Katherine Brandt who, despite being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, travels to Germany to further her research into what are popularly known as the Diabelli Variations. She pores over Beethoven’s sketches for this composition, trying to understand why he accepted music publisher Anton Diabelli’s invitation to write a variation on his simple waltz. Why did he write one, let alone 33?

Katherine is assisted by the Beethoven archive’s gatekeeper, Gertrude Ladenburger. Eventually her daughter, Clara, also travels from America to help her mother, though their relationship is strained. Mike, a nurse briefly seen initially meeting Katherine for...