Kings Cross Theatre, June 20
In a note in the program the playwright Justin Fleming asks why various events in Dresden between 80 and 180 years ago might “reach” us in Sydney today. His answer is that “we live at a time when world leaders fuse fiction with fact”. We needed no such justification. That has always happened: all that’s changed is the brazenness of the fiction.
No, Fleming’s play is refreshing and sometimes exhilarating partly because it has not succumbed to the pervading obsession with “relevance” that blights our theatres. Rather than being dumbed down, it dares to allow for the possibility that contemporary audiences might – whisper it – actually have some interior intellectual life. Now there’s a radical thought!
So he has constructed a play – and the structure is both ingenious and carefully crafted – in which the creative, philosophical and personal worlds of Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler interact a century apart. We watch how the genius of the greatest composer-librettist in history fired the imagination and helped twist the mind of one of history’s most stupendously mediocre pretend-artists.
The large, grey animal in the room, of course, is anti-Semitism, and Fleming only buys into this at the end, suggesting that Hitler’s skewed vision allowed him to grasp just the thinnest end of the monumental Wagnerian wedge. Instead Dresden is more about the creative act, the artist’s ordeals, the burgeoning sense of purpose, worth and ambition, and the power profound art can have over impressionable teenagers.
Directed by Suzanne Millar for bAKEHOUSE Theatre, this world premiere features Jeremy Waters in a potent and insightful portrayal of Wagner. The story partially hinges around Wagner dictating his memoirs to Cosima (Renee Lim), from the days of desperately trying to see Reinzi staged, through to dying in her arms. Meanwhile a young Hitler (Yalin Ozucelik) is swept away by the grandeur of Rienzi, and later arrives at a messianic confusion of himself with Wagnerian myth. Playing a Hitler devoid of parody is a fiendish assignment, and Ozucelik contrives a credible and sometimes compelling version of Fleming’s dictator. Unfortunately Lim fails to locate the centre of Cosima, undermining her crucial scenes with Waters.
The leads are joined by Thomas Campbell, Ben Wood and an especially creditable Dorje Swallow in several minor roles, the drama and intermittent comedy rising and falling on the opulence of Wagner’s music – itself a singular joy!