What's Inside Wagner's Head?
There have been some ups and some downs among the events of this Wagner bicentenary year. There was the reportedly naff new Ring at Bayreuth - so bad, some of the press said, that the German state must now think again about its support for the Wagner family management of the Festival.
But there have been some high points, too. Daniel Barenboim was lauded to the skies for his conducting of the concert performance of all four operas at this summer's Proms; and what I heard of it on the radio was magnificent. I've already written here about the triumph of the staged Ring at Longborough. Now Simon Callow's one-man show, "Inside Wagner's Head" at the Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is a masterpiece of a different order.
With a stage-full of props, an anvil, birdcages, a piano, stacks of books, a pair of Valkyrie horns, swathes of velvet, and the help of imaginative projections and snatches of music, Callow delivers a monologue in propria persona, sometimes reading Wagner's words, but always referring to him in the third person. He never transforms himself into Wagner, except to assume what might be an appropriate facial expression or posture for a few seconds while quoting the composer's essays or letters - and so he maintains a critical aesthetic and psychological distance from his subject, while narrating, chronologically over the 100 minutes of the performance, the biography of the greatest composer of the 19th century.
Not only does Callow make gripping sense of Wagner's career, he also shows, movingly, the highs and lows of it, and makes the audience realise, for example, the reversal of Wagner's fate when the boy Ludwig took the throne of Bavaria - how little Wagner expected such patronage, how startled he was by it, and how much he felt the inherent contradiction of his position as a soi-disant revolutionary financially supported by a monarch. I was a little surprised, but very impressed, that Callow resisted the temptation to tell us about Wagner's weaknesses of the flesh, particularly his fetish for the feminine underwear he ordered to be made for his own use.
It's the sheer intelligence of this piece that impressed me most. Callow is immersed in Wagner scholarship; he knows all there is to know at present about his clay-footed hero, and a great deal about Nietzsche and especially Schopenhauer, when he was head of Wagner's reading list. He is also musical, and able to indicate the importance of Tristan and Parsifal for the history of music without labouring or stretching the point. The only shortcoming, I'd say, in his entire script is that he doesn't quite make clear how this self-taught composer learned to write music in the first place, let alone change its history.
Callow's greatest virtue in this magnificent piece is that there is no elephant in the room: he starts by saying that Wagner is both a genius and a flawed human being. Anti-Semitism is mentioned in the first couple of minutes, and Callow has a very interesting view about why Wagner latched onto the Jews as the target of his vile temper and nastiest feelings. It was because Jews were "the other" (a familiar notion), not-German, despite their easy assimilation into German and European culture; and because they were so successful - just look at Mendelsohn and Meyerbeer. Envy? Yes, but worse: look at how kind Meyerbeer had been to Wagner. A particularly egregious case of biting the hand that fed him, behaviour he was to repeat again and again.
Simon Callow's performance is astonishing. He has done something very similar for Dickens, and his control of his eyes, mouth and body language is as complete as his memory is capacious. Still more striking, though, is this great actor's intellect. This is a thought-through critique of this greatest of composers; it not only tells you about his life, loves and work, but also explains, as far is this is possible, what Wagner's appeal is to his audience. This is great theatre, too. Wagner-heads (I admit to being one) will relish every reference to the music, but for novices, even Wagner-virgins, "Inside Wagner's Head" is a sublime introduction to this intellectually messy subject.
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