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by on 7 August 2022

Powerful, Emotional, Magical


by Richard Wagner, adaptation by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick

Arcola Theatre Productions at the Hackney Empire until 7th August

Review by Suzanne Frost

Grimeborn, the Arcola Theatre’s annual opera festival, has for fifteen years sought out wildly exciting new productions for curious and brave audiences – and what could be more wild, exciting and brave than a pocket-sized fringe version of only the most epic saga of the opera world, Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Fifteen hours of music and an all-encompassing story boasting over twenty individual characters, all tangled up in the same intricate web of greed and deceit, has been boiled down by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick, to bring the epos to a wider audience, originally in a community setting in Birmingham in the 90s, which proved quite the sensation.  During the height of the pandemic, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, home to one of the most legendary and huge scale Ring productions by Götz Friedrich, decided to play Dove’s stripped down version of Rheingold outdoors on the opera house’s own parking deck – tickets sold out within twelve minutes to the culture starved German audience.  While in 2019 and 2021, Grimeborn presented the first two chapters, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the cycle comes to a conclusion this year with the last two instalments Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

It is always a little strange being thrown into a story halfway through, especially a story with such complex politics as Götterdämmerung, and without knowing the conceptual consistency of this entire production, but I would love to believe that the wonderfully simple and effective set by Bettina John is the same throughout all four evenings: a labyrinth of platforms at various heights, linked by countless stairs and ladders, provides a landscape that can transform in the viewer’s imagination into truly anything.  An odd armchair, rug or a lamp here and there, outline various living room situations implying different kingdoms.  Underneath the platforms are scattered cardboard boxes (out of which, I have since learned, the Rhinegold once came in the first instalment of the cycle).  Somewhere between a rehearsal studio and an industrial East London loft apartment, the set is as functional and modern as it is spectacular to look at.  Top marks also for Robert Price’s neon tube lights that descend from the ceiling, sketching with simple colour or flickering effects anything from Siegfried’s journey along the River Rhine to the fire encircling Brünnhilde’s rock or the all engulfing flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the ultimate apocalyptic end of the world.

Only eighteen musicians (down from Wagner’s originally intended 88) of the Orpheus Sinfonia orchestra under the secure lead of Peter Selwyn create a sound as rich and powerful as you could possible ask for.  Dove’s orchestration is nothing short of masterful.  The slimming down of the epic story to a swift two and a half hours running time creates a nice action-filled pace, taking the audience along without any of the (admitted) lengths and detours of the original, always driving forward, highlighting the inevitability of it all, the destructions of gods, men and ring.

Only just wed to the former Valkyre, Brünnhilde and blissfully loved up, the shining (but arguably not very bright) hero Siegfried is already itching for new adventures and journeys over to the court of the Gibichung, a vain family led by Gunther who has ambitions to make a name for himself and his sister Gutrune.  Jovial but weak, he relies on his cunning half-brother Hagen and his impeccable understanding of politics and pulling of strings.  Of course Hagen, son of the very dwarf who once stole the Rheingold and started this whole mess, has a hidden agenda of his own.  He is portrayed by Simon Wildinger as a dark brooding intellectual with thick rimmed glasses and slicked back long hair.  His dream conversation with father Alberich – Freddie Tong casually lounging in an armchair impeccably suited and booted and far from the submissive ugly dwarf – has an air of a dark Freudian psychotherapy session.  All characters are beautifully and clearly drawn under the superb direction of Julia Burbach.  When Hagen, who is mostly shown as quietly lurking, hands in pocket, suddenly bursts into a gesture of power and anger, it shows us everything we need to know about this dangerous and calculating puppet-master of a character and his quick temper.  When he calls his men to arms we simply see a flood of flashlights appearing in the dark – a directorial idea as brilliantly theatrical as it is cost effective. 


The vast libretto is slimmed down to the essentials elegantly.  There are no Norns and very little faffing with the potion that makes Siegfried forget his bride.  Occasionally the gaps in the story do show.  Siegfried’s conversation with the Rhine maidens (dressed in rain coats with glitter on their faces, they reminded me of teenagers at a music festival) is not always coherent, and Siegfried’s death is rushed and a little anticlimactic.  Even the double gut-punch of the funeral march is played just that little bit too fast for my taste.  However, Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene is unedited, giving it the full space to grow and build.  Lee Bisset is calmly and courageously holding the space all by herself, passing through all the stages of grief, from the ritualistic “Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort” to the resigned “Ruhe, du Gott” all through to the holy fury of “Mein Erbe nun nehme ich zu eigen, verfluchter Ring” to the final ecstatic “Selig grüßt dich dein Weib”.  There are no special effects, no grand crash boom bang, just flickering red lights and the precise psychological study of Brünnhilde’s pain.  The visuals are strong, the emotions huge, the sound magical.

At curtain call it is marvellous to see how young the entire brilliant creative team are.  What a task they’ve taken on and what a success.  There are a whole list of benefits to small scale productions, from accessibility, even in potentially more remote smaller venues, to budget in times of Covid, Brexit and a cost of living crisis, and last but not least a more climate conscious way to perform and tour with smaller casts, crews and sets.  This production shows that you can cut down scale and cost without losing any of the drama, epic storytelling and artistry.  A very very impressive production.

Suzanne Frost, August 2022

Photography by Alex Brenner

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