One protagonist, Richard Wagner, is obviously received and revered but for some in the audience, the other name, Adolf Hitler, is part of living memory. My mum remembers the chaos and the Movietone newsreels of the time and several people of my acquaintance have family who were caught up in the holocaust of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. So, a play that puts this odium on stage in front of you … a gay heart, a Jewish soul, a gypsy heritage might quake to see. However, DRESDEN, playing at the Kings Cross Theatre, is not to be feared.
Playwright Justin Fleming has created a warm text that for most of its 80 minutes floats with a balance of emotion and intellect before delivering the challenge of a hard landing question to take away with you. Here there is density without heaviness and entertainment without escapism allied with a rigorous interrogation of the profundity and complexities of power in great art. And love, or the lack thereof.
We meet Richard Wagner, broke and hawking around his Opera RIENZI looking for a sponsor, a benefactor. He will find such and its production will herald a creative life for the librettist and musician best known for the sweeping, apocalyptise of The Ring Cycle. 70 years later a young man will hear the work and he believes it has set him free. Free to harness the politics of injustice into destructive force and loveless regimen.
Fleming’s text of DRESDEN is not what I expected. Without ever straying into the lightweight, this is a lightly penned text that allows his audience to fill in Hitler with their own perceptions while, at the same time, generously enriching our understanding of Wagner. Meticulously researched, Fleming’s Wagner sequences are rich with detail and anecdotal interest and the Hitler sections are expansive with character changes foregrounded by his obsession with ‘Rienzi’. With considerable precision and grace, the storytelling never ignores the brutal nor strays into the hagiographic. The tempo joke might be one of my favourite witticisms of the year so far but the conflict and intellectual pull of the final confrontation are thought- provoking and somewhat incendiary. Motivationally speaking, was this possible?
The ideas may haunt your post-show musings but this is not a thesis document, DRESDEN is a play and the writing must allow the words to be ripped from the page and made flesh. Jeremy Waters is a dynamic and expressive Wagner. His restless interpretation burns with the situational and with the burden of legacy, he is often hunched, concentrating even when walking until his inner fire and spirit opens him out. His character ages well and Waters’ work in the final part of the play brings an incredulity to the confrontation that serves to focus an audience’s subtle elision from emotion to intellect.
His confidant and legacy keeper is second wife, Cosima, and their intimacy is established early with a kiss. Love and the lack of it will pervade this production. However, Wagner is always the more ardent as, being female, Cosima is more vulnerable in the pre-married state. That reserve from Renee Lim as Cosima works well on occasion. Unfortunately, her older Cosima did not carry effectively to my place in the audience.
As an audience, one might be very wary of being so close to Hitler but between Fleming’s writing and Yalin Ozucelik’s performance Adolf grows into his menace. Ozucelik introduces his 18-year-old Hitler as gangly and idealistic, albeit with passion distorted. There will be no over reliance on the recognisability of the martinet as he develops his character slowly. We next experience him as the wordsmith agitator with a dislike of opposition or correction in a superbly written and played sequence that roils with his impatience and growing ego assertion. Later in the play, Hitler uncharacteristically does quite a bit of listening and Ozucelik’s crazy eyes and his vibrating with the desperation of desire and the adoration of Wagner are mesmerising.
The supporting cast is equally excellent with Thomas Campbell’s recalcitrant, eye liner imbued Tichatschech pulled hilariously off the page to explain and expiate Rienzi’s first outing. He also plays several other characters, as does a highly accomplished Dorje Swallow whose period characters are shrewdly mannered and layered. Ben Wood is a calm, ultimately disenchanted Gustl, friend to young Adolf and who deals with a very complex, very important didactic section with complete aplomb.
Director, Suzanne Millar has tightly held the show together with detailed touches and restrained storytelling. Even in the first scene, the clever direction is evident in the utilizing of the dual level set to imply status, a visual often returned to during the production. The movement around the traverse is never forced yet allows a full range of viewing. But, for me, it is her ability to guide the cast through those comic moments without diminishing the gravity of the whole that makes this such a stimulating night at the theatre.
The coherence of DRESDEN as theatre is also reflected, quite literally, in the setting which is shiny black and white. De Stijl, just short of full Bauhaus in the geometry of its utilitarianism, the distortion of the cast in its shiny black walls with iconic upper bevelling is a reflective memorium of the distance between us and those events. (Designer: Patrick Howe) I especially loved that embedded, waist high lantern fixed into a wall alcove, looking all the world like a cinema projection room window… the throw evocative of those newsreels my mother would have watched.
At times Benjamin Brockman’s lighting is parchment amber in the haze, like the blank manuscript that coheres the time settings together. The use of a rose red with the blue until full blood is required gives the restricted colour palette true refinement.
This is a technically impressive production, including my kudos to the audio operator who does such justice to Max Lambert’s sound design. Swelling orchestras beautifully controlled and modulated by the hand on the console to discreetly allow for audibility of dialogue. Lambert has fully embraced the echoing nature of ‘Rienzi’ without reducing its majesty. The score’s use of tiny bells and light, high chimes counterpointed by a full choir and orchestra neither overwhelms nor does it reduce Wagner’s dramatic music to background or emotional manipulation.
There is no costume designer in the program but I very much appreciated the strong hand behind the choices. Sourced and created to effect, even down to shoe heels and the cut and collars of the men’s coats. Tieless shirts and rolled up sleeves contrasted with the formality of period elements in waistcoats and cuffs. And most provoking of all, the uniform.
DRESDEN is a big production in an intimate space, the small theatre cogent of the impact of being so close to evil and immolation. Evil which may be remembered by some but which has impacted on all. Even if you are Jewish, gay, or Roma this coherent night at the theatre is not to be missed. See it at Kings Cross Theatre before it is inevitably adopted by bigger spaces.