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Potted Wagner.

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 9, 2013 at 8:45 am

Review – Inside Wagner’s Head (The Linbury Theatre, Thursday 5 September 2013)

Writer & Performer – Simon Callow
Director – Simon Stokes
Designs – Robin Don
Lighting Design – Rick Fisher
Sound Design – Adrienne Quartly
Video Design – Robin Don, Duncan Mclean

“I come to Wagner, not as an addict but as a devotee, not as a musician but as a music lover, not as an interpreter but as an observer …”

So begins Simon Callow’s programme note for his one-man show, In Wagner’s Head – part of Deloitte Ignite’s Wagner festival curated by Stephen Fry. Sadly it is the only part of Fry’s programming that I will be able to see but if the rest is of this quality then it will be impressive.

It’s a bold man who endeavours to relate the life and music of Richard Wagner on stage alone. But Simon Callow has both the presence and the charisma for the job.

This was ‘shorthand’ Wagner. But it didn’t suffer as a consequence.

Well constructed on the whole and over a span of about one hundred minutes, Callow began with the simple premise that throughout his Wagner upset people either voluntarily or not, through the sheer force of his personality.

From husbands and wives to princes and kings, from philosophers and critics to singers and conductors, each had a strong reaction to the composer, his writing and his music.

Mediocre just wasn’t ‘in Wagner’s DNA’ and no one it seemed was immune to the force of Wagner’s personality. Something that holds true even today as we celebrate his bicentenary.

Overall Callow’s narration was a fine balance of contextualised history, biography and anecdotes. He also skillfully weaved in clear and generally simple definitions of the beliefs and thinkers who had influenced the composer such as Feuerbach, Bakunin and most importantly Schopenhauer.

Naturally the script touched upon Wagner’s attitude and opinions on Judaism, which Callow dealt with adroitly. This was not I believe from any attempt to gloss over Wagner’s anti-Semitism but rather because Callow rightly felt that to enter into anything more detailed or opinionated would drag the evening off its main direction.

The stage itself was adorned with aide memoires, which enabled Callow to map the story of Wagner’s life. While some are more obvious than others – the anvil and horned helmet for example – others only become clear as Callow recounts his tale. The swinging lamp – simple yet dramatic – for The Flying Dutchman for example and the spinning wheel representing not Senta but Cosima creating hearth and home at Wahnfried. And each was smoothly woven into the narrative by Callow. Similarly the video projections were never distracting but supported what Callow was saying with some nice visual touches.

And yet, while there’s no doubt that Callow is both devotee and observer, personally I wonted for more music during the evening. The excerpts – such as they were – felt too short and there were moments when music could have lifted – or perhaps replaced – some of the narrative itself.

But by the end of the performance, it was clear that Callow had crafted this piece from his own deep love of and respect for Richard Wagner. But more importantly, he had created a work that appealed both to devotees like him as well as an audience who might not know that much about the man himself.

If there are still tickets left, it is worth seeing.


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