Simon Callow
© Catherine Ashmore

Following his solo disquisitions on Shakespeare and Dickens, Simon Callow turns his attention towards the colossus of Bayreuth, as part of the Deloitte Ignite festival celebrating the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi.

Walking in full auditorium lighting on to a stage whose clutter is vaguely intended to symbolise that of Wagner’s mind, Callow begins chattily. Is this a prologue or the beginning of the show proper? After five minutes or so the auditorium lights go down and the first of a handful of vaguely arty video projections signals the commencement of the meat of the matter.

This is not a performance comparable with Callow’s other solos; it puts me in mind of nothing so much as the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, only instead of being interspersed with amusing experiments, we get Tannhäuser. For the core fact is that Callow cannot perform these works as he can verbal ones: the words of Shakespeare and Dickens he can enact, can bring to life for us; the music of Wagner he can only describe as it is played, or pretend to pick out a few chords on a piano while once again a recording rolls. Curiously, although he emphasises the importance Wagner himself placed on his own libretti, Callow never recites any part of them.

What remains is a kind of evangelism, more at home in the studio space at Covent Garden than it would have been in its originally intended West End theatrical setting. It is informative, as it follows a simple biographical trajectory; droll, describing for instance Wagner and his second wife Cosima as being “of one mind – his” and summarising the doctor’s certification of cause of death as that “Wagner died of being Wagner”; and occasionally overplayed, as Callow throws one leg over the arm of a wooden swivel chair and declares that Wagner’s passionate preoccupation with renewing art means that “he’s Kurt Cobain, he’s James Dean”.

It is also candid about both the composer’s serial infidelities and his fervent anti-Semitism, which flew in the face of his own life experience. But in the course of its 100 or so minutes the piece never becomes any kind of artwork in its own right. It remains discursive, not creative – a fine lecture, but no more than a lecture.

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