The Rinse Cycle – Charing Cross Theatre, London

Writers: Roger Mortimer, Richard Wagner
Director: Lynn Binstock
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Richard Wagner’s epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is designed to be performed over four successive nights, resulting in a total of 15 to 16 hours’ worth of opera set in a mythical landscape filled with gods, giants, dwarfs and the occasional mortal. Unexpected Opera set themselves a formidable task by condensing the entire cycle into two hours. With a cast of five. And set in a launderette which doubles up as a cake shop (the charmingly named Patisserie Valkyrie).

What follows is an operatic comedy show which owes a lot to the trail blazed by the likes of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, poking fun at the source material while simultaneously explaining and revering it. Some of the concepts around Wagner’s operatic innovations are explained, such as musical director Kelvin Lim’s brief discussion of his use of leitmotif. and the influence on epics from Star Wars toLord of the Rings is touched on. But the lions share of the time is spent re-enacting Wagner’s story, from the moment the lustful dwarf Alberich spies the Rhinemaidens’ gold which he fashions into a magic ring, to the sacrifice of Brünnhilde and the ultimate destruction of Valhalla.

While there is much larking about when the characters are pretending to be a ragbag collection of struggling opera singers, for the most part the performances of Wagner’s arias – sung in English, in a translation by Andrew Porter – are played with absolute seriousness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mari Wyn Williams’ Hilda, whose interpretation of Brünnhilde is suffused with confidence, delicacy and love. Edward Hughes is, as posh duffer Tim, one of the weaker elements of the framing device: however, his transformation as he steps into the heroic shoes of first Siegmund and, later, Siegfried.

For people new to Wagner, or even new to opera, the mission to demystify what is the genre’s most daunting piece works completely. Only once does the comedy of the evening transgress into the operatic performance, as Anna Gregory’s Robin, playing the role of the wood bird in Siefgried, bemoans being made to dress scantily. It makes for a fun comedy number, but this production works best when the opera is taken deadly seriously.

That’s not to say there is no humour elsewhere as the songs are performed, but the larks are limited to comedically low-budget props (the dragon Fafner becomes a steam press, billowing out water vapour instead of fire; in his previous form as a giant, he and his brother Fasolt are oven gloves atop broom handles).

With the accompaniment limited to Lim’s single piano and the deliberately low-fi approach, this is light years away from the grandiose, custom built stage of Bayreuth: but it is an involving interpretation of Wagner’s greatest work, and one which educates as much as it entertains.

Runs until March 12 2016 | Image:Robert Workman


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