The Ring Cycle Plays
Devised by Phil Willmott and Mervyn Millar, adapted from Richard Wagner’s librettos by Lisa Kuma
Gods and Monsters
This is Wagner without the music and playing for four segments each of 45 minutes. It presents the whole cycle in the time you spend in the opera house for just one of them – and for free instead of costing the several hundred pounds it would at Covent Garden! But does the story that so fascinated Richard Wagner stand on its own as the composer’s libretto tells it?
When it is presented as compactly as this it is certainly much easier to follow and its themes are a great deal clearer. The corrupting effect of wealth and power symbolised by possession of the Ring and the fate it brings its successive owners is strongly demonstrated and the conflict between the power of love and the laws of consanguinity never more obvious. Not only is there a child born of half-brother and half-sister but he and his aunt also become obsessionally involved. When these gods and their half-god offspring are swept away and their corruptions with them it is left for humanity to create a better world.
Without Wagner’s music to seduce you, there is a very little in the somewhat pared down text to make you care about these characters and the multiple deceits of gods and trolls but, as directed by Phil Willmott with Racky Plews, the cast develop extra layers of character and the story takes on soap opera dimensions rather than grand opera opulence, a domestication that makes identification with these Nordic gods and spirits very much easier and helps to draw the whole audience in this 1000-seat arena into the heart of the story.
Phil Willmott’s one-eyed Wotan (he lost it to win his wife) may wear a shaggy wolf fur cloak but, despite the thunder that often echoes round him, he no longer seems the all-powerful top god who in wolf form ranged the earth fathering children. Wife Frika has found him out and seems to be the boss now while his children are like rebellious teenagers. He may have had magnificent Valhalla constructed to move to but Frika just wanted a new house not a fortified castle and the bill he owes the builders sets off a new chain of problems.
His power is weakening, despite the loyal service of Adam Hughes’s striking fire-god Loki. Wotan’s endorsement of the rights of love gives way to his wife’s morality while strong and clearly delivered performances from Claire Jaeter as Frika and Amy Christina Murray as Wotan’s Walkyrie daughter leather-clad Brünnhilde suggest power may be moving to the female.
This version turns Wagner’s dwarves, who initially steal the symbolic Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens, into Trolls -- which avoids any offence that might be given to real dwarves and removes any anti-Semitic element in their depiction. Instead it makes them more obviously part of Nordic folk myth and also opens up opportunities to play them for comedy which Phil Sealey and Terence Frisch as Alberich and his brother Mime make the most of.
Philip Scott Wallace and Latoya Lees play the adulterous and incestuous Siegmund and Sieglinde. He doubles as their son, handsome but naïve hero Siegfried, she as her goddess aunt Freia and as troll Alberich’s daughter, while Christopher Hines plays Sieglinde’s husband and Frisch and Hines the builders of Valhalla.
Sara Perkins’s set and costumes don’t offer opera house opulence but they make strong visual statements and with Charlie Hoare’s puppets as Wotan’s ravens, Rhinemaidens like fragile blue lobsters, a quickly conjured dragon, and a cat-drawn chariot and Walkyrie horses all cleverly suggested there is an effective mix of theatrical invention and imagination which culminates spectacularly in the destruction of Valhalla and the passing of responsibility to a world of humans as miniature figures movingly spread across the Scoop with a little assistance from the audience.
This hard-working cast play all the other roles between them in a smooth running production that opens with a potted history of life's beginning to take one back to the time when these gods walked the earth and through the generations to their demise.
While there may be no Wagner there is music composed by sound designer Theo Holloway. His “Ride of the Walkyrie” cannot compete with Wagner’s and often I thought the music wasn’t really needed.
When this company began the Scoop performances twelve years ago the actors used no microphones; now there is amplification. Most of the time that may help volume but in this acoustic not everything is quite as clear as it should be and a less rapid delivery might make some dialogue clearer. However it is all easy to follow.
If you are a Lord of the Rings fan you’ll find some similarities of course – Tolkien drew on some of the same sources - and you can see it as allegory or treat it as just a story. Watching it next to City Hall you may wonder what meaning Boris Johnson and your elected representatives might take from it.
The evening is neatly spaced with short breaks between plays and a longer gap half way to give time for eating. Cushions are available for hire, programme sales help fund performances and a bucket collection invites a further contribution if you can afford it but this is a free show open to everyone whether they intend to sample one play at a time or stay for the whole evening – but once you have got caught up in it you will want to see all four plays.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton