Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 12 March
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
UNEXPECTEDLY CASUAL ABOUT HIGH CULTURE
Some people get terribly, passionately serious about Wagner. This shouldn’t be a problem: truly great music of all kinds tends to attract obsessive adulation, especially whenever the artist is a controversial, genre-breaking genius (cf. the recent press reaction to the death of David Bowie). But the sad fact is that too often, this fervent Wagner-worship only alienates everyone else, who are bored, horrified, or even put off, by all that ferocious fandom. Lynn Binstock is on a mission to change this: and her Rinse Cycle brings Wagner’s Ring to us in a completely new way.
Like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Unexpected Opera take on this mighty classic with a mixture of bravery, madness, and humour. The plot of the Ring itself, now set in a café-cum-laundrette, has been shrunk “in the wash” from sixteen hours to a trim two, shedding a few characters like errant socks, but keeping all Wagner’s essential points of reference and action intact. Nancy Surman’s setting, “Patisserie Valkyrie”, gives us three huge washing-machines (labelled BISH, BASH, BOSH), uses a steam-cleaner to evoke the terrible dragon form of Fafner, and lets Siegfried temper his magically reforged sword by ironing it.
Meanwhile, Roger Mortimer’s script condenses the Ring with wonderful directness: the whole action of Siegfried (hero kills dragon, understands bird and sees through lies, kills evil dwarf, finds Brünnhilde and falls in love with her) zips along in minutes, not hours.
As a secondary storyline, we also have the story of the characters who are actually playing for us: a middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks, a pretty mistress, and two young lovers. The players’ story acts as a crucial vehicle for clarifying plot points in the Ring: “You know in a sci-fi film when they always have some idiot on board who doesn’t understand how the rocket works, so they have to explain it to him? That’s where you come in,” they tell Tim (the token ‘daft tenor’, played with winning innocence by Edward Hughes). The Ring thus gets annotated as it progresses, with players helpfully breaking out of character to remind us who is who, or why someone is where. With two complete casts to choose from, each fields strong operatic talent on stage; for all, the periodic challenge of ‘straight’ acting is a stretch from their usual singing presences, but the cast gain in assurance all evening, inhabiting Binstock’s quirky and enthusiastic world with vigour.
Wagner’s music, delivered (in Andrew Porter’s excellent English translation) with profound sincerity, rather than the disarmingly cheesy one-liners and music-hall banter which marks the spoken exchanges, has been reduced even more than the plot, to crisp piano accompaniment. Though significantly cut, this ‘tasting menu’ gives a nice, brief sense of the myriad musical moods and textures of the Ring. Unexpected Opera’s approach is characteristically unstuffy, even casual: some critics have been sniffy about this, but they’ve missed the point of the project. The self-proclaimed exclusivity of Wagnerites does Wagner no favours. This fresh, funny and utterly original take on the Ring is a joyful celebration of Wagner’s great Gesamtkunstwerk: definitely worth a spin.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
At the Charing Cross Theatre until 12 March 2016. Box office: 08444 930 650
Rating: Three …but with an added musical mouse