Hervee de Lafond, Jacques Livchine
For two weeks this summer, the National Theatre has one additional venue a cordoned off area with a tent by the Thames called Square2. With its staging of two pieces of international theatre, the aim is to put on pieces that work perfectly for a summers evening, and where, come rain or shine, the show must go on.
Starting last week with Macbeth: Who Is That Bloodied Man? by Polish company Teatr Biuro Podrozy, which featured characters on motorbikes, the overall message was clear enough: nothing and no-one is sacred. And if the best playwright ever could be ripped off last week, it was only right that it should then be the turn of (arguably) the greatest opera composer of all time.
The Threepenny Ring Cycle condenses Richard Wagners sixteen-hour epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, spread over four operas, down to a mere eighty minutes. Performed by the French company, Les Grooms, the cast consists of three singers and a brass band (whose players also take on minor dramatic roles). With the dialogue in English, but the singing in German, in this frequently hilarious and totally irreverent production, what actually comes across most is the companys love for the work.
As the audience is ushered into the small tent, with many asked to sit on the floor, from the outset the charm of the production comes from its tiny scale. So the river Rhine is portrayed with a single blue ribbon, the gods heavenly castle (Valhalla) is a cardboard box covered in tin foil, and the love relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde is tastefully portrayed using two immodestly dressed Thunderbirds style mannequins (the production does carry a ‘suitable for over 8s’ warning!).
But through all this what comes across is how well the music still sounds when played on just a few brass instruments. I found myself nearly as moved by listening to the leitmotifs of the Rhein and Valhalla here, as when hearing them in a fully staged opera, and the three main singers Jacques Auffray, Jean-Francois Chiama and Christine Oehlkern all had serious opera voices. It is also because the production has such an underlying strength, that it then becomes funny when it does take liberties with the music. So, for example, the famous Ride of the Valkyrie (used in Apocalpyse Now) is funked up, whilst the directors have the wonderful nerve to turn the chief god, Wotans tearful farewell to his daughter, Brunnhilde, into a rumba.
By being so reductionist, the show also exposes some hidden depths to the operas. For example, when the giants demand the ring from Wotan he shouts, “no, no, no … oh, all right then.” Of course, this is what actually happens in the first opera, but by cutting the lengthy music from Wotans change of heart it reveals more clearly than ever his underlying fickleness.
In truth, there are times when the comedy goes off the boil, and you long for it all to be slightly slicker. Some of the singing scenes also go on too long for this context, and the recurring joke of declaring “and now four hours have passed” becomes wearing. My main concern, however, is how someone who does not know The Ring will fare. It seems clear that they wont grasp all that is going on, but I suspect a lack of understanding won’t spoil ones overall enjoyment of the evening.
Indeed, towards the end, members of the audience were roped into playing certain parts and had to participate in Siegfrieds funeral march. All, regardless of how much they individually knew beforehand, had tapped into the evening enough to realise that they were participating in one of the most emotive scenes in all of opera. This also made it all the funnier when you could see that they knew they needed to be serious, and so had to try so hard to hold back the laughter as they processed.
And as for the ending itself, I have known many ‘real’ productions do it less dramatically. So many directors have been wary of being able to stage such an emotive ending that they have resorted to post-modern ‘cop outs.’ But with this production staring the challenge fully in the face, it proved that irreverence does sometimes have its uses. And, on this occasion, it enabled an audience that was up for a laugh to have a cracking evening of fun under the stars.