Saturday, 19 May 2012

Singapore Arts Festival 2012 - Very Wagnerian Night

Very Wagnerian Night is lengthy. Playing as it does for nearly 3 hours, just getting through the entire production becomes a test of endurance – much like my first Wagnerian experience nearly 7 years ago now. In that, I suppose, the Wagner experience it provides is somewhat authentic.

In truth, however, the production actually features relatively little of Wagner’s music for a production that claims not merely to provide a “Wagnerian Night” but a “Very Wagnerian Night” for its audiences. Both Charlottes Engelkes and Lindy Larsson have clearly had some classical training, but their voices only really shine in their renditions of popular modern-day tunes. Engelkes’, in particular, delivers a particularly sultry Beach Boys-esque number about falling in love with the King’s messenger while Larsson delivers a passionate (if slightly shrill) rendition of “Goldeneye” (yes – the James Bond tune). Even when bits of Wagner’s operas were sung, they were not sung to Wagner’s own music but what appeared to be completely different (and unrelated) compositions.

Ultimately, the bits of Wagnerian opera are just that: bits of German scattered at seeming random across a smorgasbord of dance, physical theatre, monologues, and audience interactions. Musically speaking he night was not, therefore, very Wagnerian at all. Was it any more so in terms of the production’s content?

The evening divides itself into three distinct parts. The first, Miss Very Wagner, features Engelkes as the sole performer in search of Wagner’s operatic heroines and what these characters say about femininity and female empowerment. One dominant strand to emerge from this smörgåsbord of ships’ sails, flimsy home-made props, on-stage dashing about, asides to the audience and swan impersonations is the question of believability: how believable are Wagner’s heroines who (amongst others) fall in love with men based on their photographs and then throw themselves off cliffs in order to prove their faithfulness after he has rejected them? Engelkes’ repeated tongue-in-cheek asides to the audience about how “A Good Soprano” must make these things believable is an acknowledgement of how unreal all of Wagner’s women must sometimes seem – and how ridiculous.

But there is something else running beneath all of Engelkes’ good-natured humour and breaking of the fourth wall – an underlying motif arising out of her choice to tell the stories of several of Wagner’s female characters from a single, personal perspective. The stories are different but there is a sense in which they are all the same – one indistinguishable pattern of limited choice, enslavement and womanly sacrifice that Wagner’s female characters return to again and again in the same way that Wagner’s compositions return again and again to explore the same musical motifs and chords. As Engelkes points out in an early monologue: this pattern of loving too much and sacrificing all in the face of unjust accusations and demand is one that real women are no strangers to – even if we don’t end up throwing ourselves off a cliff.

With all of the above peeping through the distractingly cluttered production, I found it possible to remain engaged by Miss Very Wagner, though at one and a half hours the play felt unnecessarily drawn out. The themes I raise above could possibly have been explored with more clarity and certainly with more succinctness.

If the first part of the evening held some promise, the second part – Siegfried – The Very Wagner Hero Hour – marked the start of a steady descent in my enjoyment. Siegfried purports to explore a simple question (“What is a superhero?”), but it does so in the most messy and oddly camp way possible. Comic books are strewn across the stage and pasted in a collage over the panel backdrop; a throwaway line about becoming a man erupts into a song-and-bodypainting exercise; and references to every man being a hero intersperse the main tale which appears to follow the original story of Wagner’s Siegfried – where a boy comes into possession of the Ring of Power after having killed his stepmother, slain a dragon and drunk of its blood. It is difficult enough to try and make sense of all these varying notions of heroism; my head began to really hurt, though, once references to the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch (“Do you want to save the world? Which world were you thinking of? Which world do you choose to belong to?”) were thrown in – seemingly at random, and without any attempt to guide the audience in making sense of what they were seeing on stage.

Perhaps if I was being generous, I would make the argument that by throwing up potential answers without any guidance, the production is itself engaging in an Übermensch-esque exercise of asking its audience to define their own value of what a superhero was. That is with the benefit of hindsight, though, and whilst feeling far less exhausted than I was feeling that night. At the time, though, I both felt and understood the frustrations of an audience that was both tired after more than two and a half hours of performance and struggling to keep both its sense of humour and its willingness to engage any further with the incomprehensible performance unfolding before it.

Which brings us to the third portion of the production, titled All is Divine. This part made no bones of the fact that it was a work in progress.

It is a caveat makes it difficult to say much about the third portion of the evening – an unfortunate thing, given the fact that the scope of the third act appears to be the evening’s most ambitious. The programme states that All is Divine seeks to explore the end of all things, the beginning of the new and our future relations to power, gold and pride. Should it deliver, it would be something to applaud. But I am sceptical, given the Company’s tendency to range widely in the ideas and images it deploys while offering little direction to the audience as to which way it intends to go.

Some of this is already evident in the parts of the work that were staged. We are presented with a series of unconnected references to the end of the world: a “Welcome to Hell Air” segment that seemed borne out of Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination, an image of Yggdrasil the World Tree falling apart, the Furies cackling about cutting the threads of the future, an image of Odin with his ravens awaiting the coming of Ragnarok, and Larsson singing to The Carpenters (“Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?”). All this was accompanied by swooping dance moves in the background, multilingual monologues and “artistically” performed brush calligraphy – things which, I fear, have a tendency to immediately trigger anyone’s impatience button. All is Divine presently lacks focus, but that is excusable in a production that explicitly claims to be a work in progress. What it cannot be excused for is for taking itself too seriously – a tendency that I hope will be corrected before it is finally complete.

Most people have heard of Wagner but few have actually experienced his works. In view of this, Very Wagnerian Night fits well within the object of this year’s Singapore Arts Festival of bringing our “lost poems” to life. But what works as an intellectual exercise does not always translate into a good audience experience (hence, the growing dissatisfaction I experience watching the Siegfried segment and the outright impatience I felt with All is Divine). There are strong possibilities to be explored in the concepts of Wagner’s heroes and heroines. But Very Wagnerian Night strikes me as having a few too many ideas while offering far too few conclusions. While I appreciate the desire to explore these concepts and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, there is something to be said for helping your audience along. In the end, three hours is a long time to have to struggle to make sense of something. The experience would be helped if we were helped as well.