Reviews West End & Central Published 7 September 2013

Inside Wagner’s Head

Linbury Studio ⋄ 6th - 29th September 2013

The angel and the reptile.

Nathan Brooker

An evening spent rummaging around the mind of Richard Wagner is a daunting prospect. The controversial composer, for whom 2013 marks his double century, was perhaps one of the most unpleasant men ever to draw breath. To his followers, however his musical output represents some of the most sublime art of the 19th – or in fact any other – century.

Simon Callow’s one man salutation to the mind of Richard Wagner is an attempt, one supposes, to square the circle, to reconcile those two facets of Wagner’s character: the angel and the reptile – and largely, it succeeds.

Callow’s monologue begins with the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, when Wagner, then 63, had reached what was arguably the climax of his musical career: the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle. Then going back to Wagner’s childhood, Callow tells the story of the composer’s life, from being an unpleasant (perhaps illegitimate) child, through his wanton, reckless adolescence – where he stole his mother’s savings to pay off gambling debts – to his conniving adult life, forever on the scrounge from wealthy friends whom he repaid in the desperate seduction of their wives and/or daughters.

Callow’s dramatic lecture – because that is what it is, really – is for the main part spirited and even handed, dealing unflinchingly with Wagner’s bad temper, his egotism and, of course, his hysterical anti-Semitism. Now and again, Callow starts sounding a little purple, but we’ll forgive him that; what really holds this production back – and where his other one-man shows on Dickens and Wilde succeeded – is the lack of Wagner himself. Where Callow could emphatically (and skilfully) recite chunks of Pickwick Papers or Salome, here there is precious little music, save a handful of recorded snippets and the odd burst on a Casio keyboard.

Robin Don’s set is a triumph, a dusty curiosity shop, cluttered with all manner of mnemonic paraphernalia. There, hidden among the piles of books and sheet music, is an antique thread-spinning wheel, nods to German folk stories, Parsifal’s holy grail reconstituted as a glass of red wine and the obligatory horned Viking helmet. The backdrop is perhaps a little much, though, when it wasn’t doubling as a screen for the production’s several projected interludes, it showed a 60 sq ft poster of Wagner’s horrible face, in extreme close up.

Inside Wagner’s Head is not a play in the strictest sense. It is, though, an informative, engaging and thought-provoking evening spent in the theatre, with Callow as the enthusiastic, well-researched, and ever-likeable host.


Nathan Brooker

Nathan is a freelance journalist at the Financial Times and a freelance researcher for BBC Films. In his spare time he likes watching television programmes made by Armando Iannucci, thinking really hard about things and lying to himself and everyone close to him about liking apricot jam. He lives in London.

Inside Wagner’s Head Show Info

Directed by Simon Stokes

Written by Simon Callow

Cast includes Simon Callow


Running Time 1hr 45 minutes (no interval)



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