“A Ring Cycle set in a launderette? Well, I’ve seen weirder productions…” Unexpected Opera’s approachable and slick reduction of Wagner’s epic starts on a characteristically unstuffy note, and proceeds to soften us up with disarmingly cheesy jokes, some ribald stage antics, and bags of energy. The Rinse Cycle cheerfully pokes fun at itself, as well as some of our worst hangups and anxieties about the Ring, indisputably the greatest achievement of all Western classical music: hangups which, most importantly, prevent many of us from ever experiencing it. Lynn Binstock is on a mission to change this: and her Rinse Cycle brings Wagner’s Ring to us in a completely new way.
There are two stories in play. First, we have the plot of the Ring itself, shrunk “in the wash” from sixteen hours to a trim two, shedding a few characters like errant socks (so, goodbye Loge, Donner, Froh, Gunther!), but keeping all Wagner’s essential points of reference and action intact. Secondly and metatheatrically, we have the story of the characters who are actually playing for us: a middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks, the pretty mistress who’s distracting the husband, and two young lovers whose relationship takes a serious turn in the course of the production. The players’ story acts as a crucial vehicle for Binstock to clarify plot points and explain what’s happening 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. This secondary story also reflects various themes in the greater drama: most obviously Wotan’s loveless union with Fricka, Siegfried’s passion for Brünnhilde, but also Wagner’s wider themes about the crucial role of desire in all beings, the crushing inertia of despair, and the regenerating power of love. If the secondary narrative may threaten to overwhelm the first, stay with it. It does actually help. It also gives the players a chance to voice some of our natural (and funniest) knee-jerk reactions to the Ring: “Hang on, aren’t they brother and sister? …isn’t that his aunt? So much incest!” shrieks one shocked character. Seasoned Wagnerian fans may grin: admit it, we all thought that first time round.
Roger Mortimer’s script, replete with old-fashioned one-liners (particularly from sharply sniping wife Edith) and music hall banter, sets the audience at ease while condensing the Ring with wonderful directness. So, the giants Fasolt and Fafner are now oven-glove puppets, and their brutal exchanges take moments, not minutes. 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.
Above all, Brünnhilde’s crucial exchange with Wotan about Siegmund’s fate at the heart of Die Walküre (which is actually quite an involved piece of Schopenhauerian philosophy to do with free will, and vital to understanding the whole work) comes across with brilliant immediacy; it’s not simple, and many “proper” productions would give their eye teeth to be this clear. Andrew Porter’s excellent English translation of Wagner sits nicely alongside Mortimer’s more casual prose style, so that when the stage does periodically burst into full-blooded Wagnerian singing, our attention doesn’t flag, though the music is generally delivered with profound sincerity rather than the humour which marks the spoken exchanges.
The music, naturally, has been reduced far more than the plot: we get not so much a ‘greatest hits’ as a tempting tasting menu of Wagner, to crisp and simple piano accompaniment by Kelvin Lim. We still have a little explanation of leitmotifs, and key moments like the Rhinemaidens’s opening scene with Alberich, the Gods’ Entry into Valhalla, rapturous love duet Winterreise, Siegfried’s Forging Song, the Woodbird’s lyrical melody, and Brünnhilde’s Immolation; not many of them uncut, but if you know the music well, I think you’ll appreciate the editorial decisions. I did. The point of The Rinse Cycle is to attract people, not to put them off: this selection gives a nice, brief sense of the myriad musical moods and textures of the Ring, evoking key themes from the glory of nature to the viciousness of greed, which I hope would leave many just wanting to hear more. And that, surely, is the point.
Nancy Surman’s design of “Patisserie Valkyrie”, Ronnie’s café, has fun with the launderette concept, giving us three huge washing-machines (labelled BISH, BASH, BOSH), using a steam-cleaner to evoke the terrible dragon form of Fafner, and letting Siegfried temper his magically reforged sword by ironing it. The Tarnhelm is an old-fashioned mesh laundry bag, and the infamous Ring actually “rings” – it’s a huge golden bicycle bell. Meanwhile, a vast iron ring at the back of the stage glows with colour, representing fire, water and so on; costumes are simple and quick for the cast to change into (the Rhinemaidens have vinyl mermaid aprons and rubber gloves, Wotan grabs a winged helmet from a laundry bag).
With two complete casts to choose from, each fields strong talent on stage (the cast I didn’t see includes the exceptional Justine Viani). Simon Thorpe (as “Ronnie”, café owner with his roving eye focused on the adorable Hilda) plays Alberich, Wotan, Hunding, Mime and Hagen: to help us keep track, they all have different accents, and Hagen scoops the prize with a Sean Connery drawl which oozes sophisticated, calm malice. “Hilda” gets the winsome Welsh wench treatment from Mari Wyn Williams, who doubles a Rhinemaiden alongside a nicely-sung Brünnhilde, her performance full of warm detailing and engaging energy, often the heart of this production. As “Robin”, Anna Gregory combines a Rhinemaiden, an appealing Sieglinde, a truly hilarious Woodbird and a too-cool-for-school, cocktail-swilling Gutrune.
Harriet Williams excels as “Edith”, the ageing mezzo who rediscovers her joy in singing while delivering a fine Fricka and fabulous Erda along the way (and our final Rhinemaiden). Edward Hughes blusters merrily at the butt of all the jokes as “Tim”, and shows he can turn his able hand to glove puppetry as well as sing a seriously impressive Siegmund, with a Siegfried to match. 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 and increasing panache.
Not every last myth is busted. Above all, there’s zero airtime for the much-mauled question of Wagner’s antisemitism, although Binstock has drawn a cheekily accurate parallel between Wotan’s need for a free agent and the Jewish concept of the shabbas goy, a gentile who can perform tasks Jews cannot perform for themselves on the sacred Sabbath, a spicy lateral connection as perfect as it is deliberate. So much, however, is achieved: this fresh, funny and utterly original take on the Ring is a joyful celebration, not an irreverent redaction, of Wagner’s great Gesamtkunstwerk. Definitely worth a spin.
At the Charing Cross Theatre until 12 March 2016. Box office: 08444 930 650