Monday, June 4, 2012

Wagner, Brecht and the old blokes with the IPads…

By Alanna Maclean

It was a Sunday where the new crashed into the old.

At the Dendy there was Susan Froemke’s long and absorbing documentary on the Metropolitan Opera’s collaboration with Robert Lepage to produce a new look for Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Outside the Lincoln Centre in New York the purists fumed before they’d even seen Lepage’s mighty many armed machine on stage, a machine that, overlaid with various projections and moving in multiple configurations, would, in theory, be much more flexible in presenting Wagner’s huge concepts than previous attempts.

It’s kind of appropriate that the whole set echoes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Everything from the Rhine River in Das Rheingold to the immolation of Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung is played out on, over, on top of and in between the ‘planks’ of the set, revolving on a central spine. Rhine maidens get their fins caught in the cracks in rehearsal, stunt doubles at the end of cables walk the vertical rainbow bridge to Valhalla and Deborah Voigt’s Brunnhilde covers well for a nasty first night tumble on what must have been at times a stage with a terrifying rake.

This is a film for anyone with even a passing interest in staging but it is the techies who will revel in the detail and the backstage shots of the people who wear black. On the design front it’s a bit of an object lesson in the perils of driving things by computer. Masses of blokes with laptops debate seriously as the machine and the opera audibly grind to a halt in rehearsal. Of course halts and accidents are not unknown with more conventional staging but this is so massive and so much has been invested in designing and building the set that you want it to work.

Whether it does so theatrically is another matter. This documentary was shown as a curtain raiser to the Dendy’s Met Opera The Ring Cycle Encore Screenings, but film is not theatre. It’s all very impressive but I’m watching it at one remove and a trip to NY is expensive. I have a certain trust in Lepage’s capacity, however, having loved his Far Side of the Moon some years ago at the Sydney Festival.

There could be more about the lighting, which is a key transformational element, not just washing the machine with the kind of projections that Wagner’s stagecraft could perhaps only do with paint but also with placing pools of light and washes where they need to be. Certainly the computers are involved in this these days but it was good to see that follow spots still seemed to be operated by humans. And they were not bringing the show to its knees.

It’s important to remember that this is also a film about the real and hard work of putting a show together, something it reflects very clearly. And it does not neglect front of house either; the pithy and perceptive comments of one of New York’s wonderful, knowledgeable, middle aged, outspoken theatre ushers are also given a moment.

It all makes me want to rush off to the encore screening to see if I can guess from that how it all might have worked on the stage.

No such problem over at The Street last weekend where John Muirhead and Chuck Mallett’s Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond played to full houses. No huge machines here, just two older blokes, a fancy chair, a grand piano, a black box stage, a bit of illumination and a couple of IPads.

That last set me back, I can tell you. No page turning for Mallett at the piano, no piles of taped together music, no discrete running list page for Muirhead. Never mind the Met’s machine – here’s the future in an instant and Muirhead’s knowing cherub of a Bertold Brecht is waving it at us, while at every fade to black Mallett’s mediaeval imp’s face is reflecting its blue.

As for what they did with seventy minutes with Brecht’s poems and songs, it was a window on the work beyond the plays as well as one that allowed a glimpse into The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage in particular. Brecht’s sardonic and uncompromising views on war, on poverty, on the need for humanity made for a thoroughly engrossing and human show done by a couple of surefooted veterans.

These little shows at The Street sneak up and vanish fast. Look out for further Solo at The Street pieces like Paul Capsis’ Angela’s Kitchen (13-23 June), Michael Hurst’s Frequently Asked Questions (10-21 July) and Boy Girl Wall with Lucas Stibbard (22AAug-1 Sept). Angela’s Kitchen has already had publicity and that for Boy Girl Wall is yet to come, but I don’t forget that New Zealand’s Michael Hurst not only comes with a great theatre pedigree but was also Hercules’ funny and endearing sidekick Iolaus in the Hercules TV series. He would also appear to have been the only actor in New Zealand not in The Lord of the Rings.

Whether any of the above will come waving their IPads remains to be seen.