YOU WILL NOT PLAY WAGNER
YOU WILL NOT PLAY WAGNER, Shalom and Moira Blumenthal Productions at the Eternity Playhouse, 4-28 May 2017. Photography - above - Annie Byron and Benedict Wall; below - Tim McGarry and Annie Byron
Art versus politics, logic versus emotions, myth versus fact, these are the disputes at the heart of Victor Gordon’s 90-minute play but which he finally fudges with a “you make up your own mind” slide out the door. He fails to examine or honour any of it in favour of the kind of serenely didactic approach one might expect in a U3A lecture.
The topic of the lecture would be the fascinating and wildly contradictory Israeli attitude to the music of Wagner: unofficially banned from live performance in the country because of a fiercely argued connection between the composer and Nazi Germany. Apparently it is Wagner’s fault that Hitler idolised him even though he was long dead before the unspeakable little man began humming his tunes.
(If you’re not familiar with the debate and its pitfalls, there’s a good article in The New Yorker from 2012: The Case for Wagner in Israel – but don't forget to come back here afterwards.
In a nutshell, Wagner can be heard on Israeli radio, but any attempts to present his music in concert still causes riots.
In You Will Not Play Wagner, a bolshie young Israeli conductor Ya’akov (Benedict Wall) is bidding to do, in a prestige, career-making music competition, what in real life such megastars as Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim failed to do: perform Wagner live and in public in Israel. If you’ve read The New Yorker article you will already know of a similar event, in 2012, when the Israel Wagner Society (yes, really!) was prevented from putting on such a concert in Tel Aviv.
It was to have been conducted by Asher Fisch (now Principal Conductor of the WA Symphony Orchestra). He had a very particular interest in wanting to do it, as described in The New Yorker, “The Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, who was to have led the concert, has personal reasons for campaigning against the unwritten ban: his mother, who was forced to leave Vienna in 1939, felt that if her son could conduct Wagner in Israel it would amount to a final victory over Hitler, and he still hopes to realize her dream.”
It’s an argument raised in the play, among others, by Ya’akov, but he is up against the competition’s formidable founder and chief benefactor, Esther (Annie Byron) and she is the irresistible force and immovable object all rolled into one mink-wrapped battle tank.
Byron pretty much carries the hour and a half of didactic wrangling and, with Moira Blumenthal’s unobtrusive direction, she elegantly fleshes out the super-rich, sardonic New Yorker. Esther’s attitude is understandable: her childhood psyche was scarred first by Kristallnacht, then physically by eventual survival of the Holocaust with a number tattooed on her arm. (An unexpected and funny one-liner about the infamous SS identifier is a hint of what might have been, in place of soft sentimentality.)
Byron could bring death and meaning to the reciting of a shopping list, but her co-cast members don’t fare as well. As her old friend and the competition’s organiser Morris, Tim McGarry is valiant but overwhelmed by verbiage. Benedict Wall has more to work with, hackneyed though it is – angry young man, slobby young man, cocky young man, etc etc – while Kate Skinner as Esther’s young assistant Miri is utterly wasted as the mechanical contrivance that answers phones and pours tea.
A friend who is an ultra-smart theatre person suggested an alternative to the obvious arguments between Esther and Ya-akov: draw Miri into focus and have the two young characters at loggerheads over the moral and historical questions. It could have been interesting and also throw up some less predictable ideas and outcomes.
As it is, the four characters manoeuvre their way around an oddly constricted set (which leaves a yawning space between them and the audience) in a series of excellent costumes – three each, I think – (design Hugh O’Connor, lighting Emma Lockhart-Wilson). The back wall is occasionally used for historic images (video design Mic Gruchy) that heighten the drama, when there is some, but the main creative excitement is provided by Katelyn Shaw’s thoughtful sound design – no trace of Wagner, however!
You Will Not Play Wagner could have been a spellbinding drama around the conflicting states mentioned in the first paragraph. As it is, it’s a wasted opportunity despite the great efforts of director and cast, but it might jog you into wanting to find out more. For instance, from The New Yorker article I discovered that Wagner did not feature in concentration camp life during WW2. Rather, the composer whose work should give survivors the shudders is Johann Strauss and those other creators of light operetta. It at least explains to me why I’ve always loathed it. Who knew. Unfortunately, my beloved aunt whose arm tattoo I stroked as a small brat is no longer around to ask.