Simon Callow’s one-man play Inside Wagner’s Head is an enthralling, dense and unpredictable attempt to examine the inner workings of the mind of divisive German composer Richard Wagner. Whether an opera aficionado or a complete newcomer to Wagner, Callow’s enthusiasm is infectious and the whole audience is guaranteed to be hooked within the first few lines.
On a stage cluttered with props, instruments and ladders, including a few items from previous Royal Opera House productions of Wagner’s works, Callow emerges and relays a recent conversation with a musician friend who, at the mention of Wagner’s name, guffawed and exclaimed his distaste. Wagner, Callow explains, is one of the few writers who still inspires strong reactions: productions of his operas sell out, but some vehemently loathe his music. This productions asks why, and, as the title might suggest, attempts to get inside the great man’s head to see things from his perspective.
The stage becomes a manifestation of the inside of the composer’s mind and Callow picks through the clutter and contradiction to chronologically analyse the major events in Wagner’s life, looking at the inseparable relationship between the life of the man and his music. Of course, Callow has a deep-seated respect for the musical talent of Wagner, but he presents all sides of Wagner on stage. From his seduction, wild hedonism and tempestuous relationships with his many women, to his revolutionary spirit and apparent divine inspiration, Callow paints a full portrait of the man that doesn’t shy away from the difficult inherent contradictions.
The show is undoubtedly fascinating. It doesn’t presume too much prior knowledge of Wagner, although of course most of the audience did appreciate the occasional classical music in-jokes. Callow is glorious: his delivery is conversational and humorous and he effortlessly flits between directly addressing the audience and becoming Wagner himself.
Aided by some climactic, emotive projections by Robin Don and Duncan McLean, Rick Fisher’s spectacular lighting design and Don’s detailed, thoughtful set design, Callow’s play is surprisingly epic for a solo show about a composer. It is a shame that there wasn’t more of Wagner’s music, but what music there was appropriate and effective.
At times the show is rather dense, and a newcomer to Wagner might feel the need to go away and do some Googling after the show, but it is a piece of theatre that is just as informative as it is entertaining. There are some discoveries made by Callow, director Simon Stokes and the research team that are genuinely surprising, and the level of depth and understanding that the piece achieves is truly inspiring.
This is a chance to see one of our nation’s greatest actors and writers in a piece about a fascinating and complex man.
Inside Wagner’s Head is presented as part of this year’s Deloitte Ignite Festival at the Royal Opera House, which is curated by Stephen Fry and focuses on the two great artists Verdi and Wagner. Alongside the ticketed events like this are a range of brilliant free events. Don’t miss out on all this festival has to offer.
Inside Wagner’s Head is playing at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House until 28 September. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.