LK: What gave you the idea to stage Wagner’s Ring Cycle libretto as drama?
PW: Two factors really. The first was I read of a company who’d done it in Chicago, it immediately appealed as the kind of ridiculously over ambitious idea that I love to tackle but I shuddered at the barrage of snobbery I imagined such a project would face in London. However the Chicago director reassured me that Wagner buffs, genuine ones and the poseurs, had embraced the opportunity to study the plots in isolation and introduce newcomers to his world. I made a mental note to explore the idea further at some point. Then, last autumn, we refocused our company, rebranding as GODS AND MONSTERS, with the avowed aim of staging the great myths of the world at the Scoop. I fancied starting with Norse myths and as Wagner had already so expertly knitted together Viking and Germanic legend into a pertinent, story of regime change and the power of love it seemed pointless to stage anything else.
LK: Everyone is so into Tolkein and Game of Thrones at the moment. My first reaction when you approached me was that it would be interesting for people to see how this world had already been presented a century or so earlier.
PW: Plus it’s a treat for anyone who’s interested in the principals of story structure.
LK: We should make it clear that we’re not saying our version is an alternative to the opera, are we?
PW: God, no. If the sound of an operatic voice speaks to you, if you’ve hundreds of pounds and several days to spare you should absolutely go and see the opera. I’ve worked my way through two complete productions on DVD now. I borrow them from my partner’s music shop because they cost around £100 each. This isn’t supposed to be an alternative to all that, rather it’s a chance to celebrate the myths.
LK: And Wagner’s genius as a story teller, which of course is often eclipsed by his uber-genius as a composer.
PW: Right, But it’s predominantly an opportunity for 30 thousand people, a large percentage of whom we know from our surveys have never been to the theatre before, to come together and experience the pleasures of discovering a great story using just their imaginations and the impact of live performance.
LK: I love that there’s no big budget and CGI at the Scoop. We have to help the audience to conjure up a whole world in their head with just a few simple props and a rummage in the dressing up box!
I think people might be interested in why you call the script an adaptation rather than a translation.
LK: It actually sticks pretty closely to the original but you encouraged me to cut and embellish a little when it would make the motivations, themes and story arc more satisfying as drama.
PW: But you’ve also found a language that can stand up on its own not just as something that serves a musical score.
LK: I hope so. Remember, we had lots of discussions on how colloquial to get and decided it rather cheapened things to make these massive characters speak as we do. So I’ve tried to retain some of the formality with which it might have been translated in 1876 but in a more immediate and muscular verse form.
PW: I’ve noticed though that every so often you’ll throw in a curve ball, a modern phrase that jolts the audience back to the present, I used to think that was a lucky accident.
LK: No, I’ll do that every time I think there’s a danger of verse becoming too purple or the emotions getting so grand that they stop being something we can relate to.
PW: When we came to put the script together we found that we were more influenced then we’d expected by our past work on the Greek epics like the Orestia and the Theban plays.
LK: That’s right, the form of verse we’re using is closer to those then the original libretto.
And you asked me to change the dwarfs to Trolls.
PW: I’ve worked with a lot of actors who live with dwarfism and Spina Biffida and it made me uncomfortable that Wagner had made them the sly, grasping, villains of the piece.
LK: Even worse, because they’re goldsmiths, the original audience would have seen them as Jews.
PW: Horrible. Anyway that was nearly two centuries ago and our treatment of the story has evolved way beyond that. These days I see them representing the dark side of any us who let greed and jealousy rule their head.
LK: Didn’t the Nazi’s also aspire to the purity of Siegfried’s heroism?
PW: Apparently, though quite why they admired such a dunderhead I’m not sure.
LK: I enjoyed making up a forest language that he and Mime share in their isolation. You’ll notice that Siegfried’s vocabulary improves as he shakes off that influence.
PW: That’s been fun in rehearsals too. Going back to how our work with Greek drama has influenced our approach; perhaps it’s because of performing them in successive seasons but it’s also surprised me how many similarities there are between Wotan’s struggle with a modern rule-by-consent in the Ring Cycle and Creon’s in Antigone. Neither father succeeds in gaining respect from children ruled by passion and both dynasties are doomed as a result.
LK: I’ve heard you describe the whole cycle as Wotan’s suicide note.
PW: Well, that’s bit pat but, yes... Wotan finds that he and the rule of the gods is incompatible with a world that will no longer obey unquestioningly. So like a chess master he devices a long game to secure his off-spring’s grip on the new style power even after his death. This gives us the spine of the plot. Alas, for him, things don’t go as he’d hoped.
LK: I think the message is timeless. No tyrant can dictate the future or their legacy. I’m relieved we managed to distil the vast ring cycle down to one epic evening.
PW: Well, as you know, so much of the original dialogue is repetitious exposition because the script was constructed to allow Wagner’s music to shine. In the operas the plot often grinds to a halt for hours to allow the score space to reach its full potential. On this occasion that isn’t necessary.
LK: Were you tempted to incorporate Wagner’s music?
PW: Not really, again I wanted these stories to satisfy in their own right without constantly referencing that they’re usually just one element of a greater whole. Also the cinematic soundtracks that Theo Holloway composes for us each year have been so integral to the success of past productions that I didn’t want to restrict how he responded to these texts.
LK: The other issue I imagine is that virtually no one can hum you anything from the Ring Cycle other then the Ride of the Walkyrie and that’s been so over used in parody that it’s very hard to take it seriously.
PW: I agree, so if the vast majority of the audience won’t recognise or respond to a musical Wagner quote there doesn’t seem to be much point in tying ourselves in knots to reproduce them.
LK: What’s it like acting in the Scoop?
PW: Well, tight budgets mean I’ve had to experience it again by joining the cast myself in recent years. I can tell you it’s unlike anything I ever encountered during drama school and my youth as an actor. To walk out into that space surrounded by the rapped attention of hundreds of people who’ve never seen a play live before is a wonderful experience.
LK: The Thebans last year was a revelation to me. I expected something rather more throw away and declamatory. But there were moments when you could have heard a pin drop such was the intensity of the audience and actor’s investment in the story. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to work with you for a second year. There was a quiet, psychological nuance I never thought possible.
PW: Well, yes, when the weather’s on our side. I can’t promise we always hit that in the face of a gale or down pour but we try!
LK: You’re into your second decade of making theatre here.
PW: It’s my favourite thing in my working year. The fact that I was able to afford an escape to the theatre at pocket money prices as a kid in Bristol allowed me to discover Shakespeare, Shaw, Moliere, Lorca etc. It informed the adult I became. Far more than anything I learnt at school. I really hope offering Theatre for free in this welcoming environment inspires someone else with a glimpse of life beyond the every-day. I’d make theatre for this audience all year round if it were possible.
LK: What do you hope from the next ten years?
PW. A little more respect from the theatre establishment for what we do here would be nice with a resulting boost in government funding. But on a warm night we can’t cram anymore people in, we’ve got the youngest most culturally diverse audience in London, and every time we haven’t the money to continue enlightened corporate or private sponsors come forward. All I can hope is that I don’t screw up whatever magic makes that happen or take it for granted.