Reigniting the Wagner debate

Benedict Wall (left) and Tim McGarry in You Will Not Play Wagner. Photo: Megan Garcia

THEATRE review of You Will Not Play Wagner. Reviewed by Brad Syke – Encapsulated  in the title of Victor Gordon’s one-act, 90-minute play is one of the key emblematic, enigmatic dramas of Jewish life. Nowhere more so than in Israel, where German composer Richard Wagner has been not so politely ignored and eschewed since the Jewish state’s foundation.

Moira Blumenthal directs You Will Not Play Wagner, bringing her substantive pedigree (My Name is Asher Lev, Coming To See Aunt Sophie) to bear in this premiere production at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst.

Every so often, we become aware of a conductor here, a critic there – of Jewish heritage – sticking his head above the parapet to controversially champion Wagner’s worth; not, of course, as a human being, which recommends him with, at best, gravely dubious merit, but as a composer of, many would argue, uncommon genius and originality. It’s always contentious and for very good reason.

On the censorial side, needless to say, for Holocaust survivors, the merest association with Nazism can not only be offensive, but disturbing, unleashing a flood of unbearable memories.

In the face of this trauma, standard philosophical arguments (that the way to triumph over Wagner, Hitler, Nazism, anti-Semitism and even the Holocaust is to ‘own’ the composer’s work) can’t really compete. Ideology, after all, is rarely humanising or empathic.

There’s the rub and nub of this well-intended, if more than a little didactic, work, even if the playwright steadfastly insists it’s not about Wagner, but rather wider tensions, between old and new.

There are those who might somewhat feebly protest that, given appropriate warnings it should be possible to publicly perform Wagner in Israel, as it has never been officially prohibited.

This is illuminated as well. But, in the end, true to the author’s vision, the central question becomes: How do we respect and honour the past, yet move on?

You Will Not Play Wagner begins in high cinematic style, with projected allusions (and crackling sound effects) of the infamous night, in November, 1938, of fire, brimstone and broken glass that was the wholesale horror of Kristallnacht. Video designer Mic Gruchy’s fiery, red images are projected, eerily, onto the historic wall of the theatre.

None of the actors are Jewish – no pressure other than to persuade an overwhelmingly community-based audience the characters they portray are.

Annie Byron stars as Esther Greenbaum, an elderly survivor and wealthy patron of an international conducting competition; Tim McGarry plays Morris, the competition’s chairman of judges and confidante of Esther’s; Kate Skinner is Miri, a loyal and dedicated personal assistant; Benedict Wall plays Ya’akov, the much-favoured Israeli aspirant who dares, like conductors Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim before him, to propose Wagner.

Performances across the board are a little over-egged, suffering marginally from eschewing a more naturalistic tenor. Having said that, Byron makes a good show of insinuating buried, indelible trauma, which seeps out of her soul in the dead of night; sometimes, it even poisons moments through her days.

McGarry is solid, striking a balance between advocate for Esther’s entrepreneurialism and a more bureaucratic flag-bearer for diplomacy.

Skinner hits the mark and forges a credible, if not entirely distinct accent, while Wall creates a suitably brash character, with expansive physicality, even if his faux Israeli accent (at least according to my Israeli date) didn’t quite cut the kosher mustard.

There’s a vague taint of (wellmeaning) amateurism, yet You Will Not Play Wagner emerges as a cogent, forensic probe into old versus new guards, challenging us to consider, or reconsider, precisely where we stand.

You Will Not Play Wagner is at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until May 28. Bookings: www.shalom.edu.au