VALHALLA IN A VALHANGAR
Deep in the bleak Cold War desolation of the old US Air Base in Suffolk stands a shed where once jet engines were tested. Inside, the old Norse gods gather to bicker, swing axes, rip out eyes, bind Fenrir the wolf whose jaws will eat the world. They brag of feuds and love affairs more entangled than Dynasty, and move inexorably towards their Gotterdammerung twilight. Walls rumble away, giants with gnarled heads and fiery eyes lumber out of the tunnel where once the jet-flames roared. Puppet eagles fly overhead.
Eastern Angles, with a commendable desire to express the ancient mentality which sent the funeral ship to Sutton Hoo up the road, have commissioned Charles Way to tell the tale of the bickering gods, with Hal Chambers directing, a gleefully site-specific design by Samuel Wyer, and brilliantly ominous soundscapes from Benjamin Hudson. Audiences are either fascinated – like me – or, in a few cases, baffled (“I don’t do f—ing goblins!” muttered one. But he did like the giants).
For Norse myths have tended to be outranked in general awareness by the Greek variety, and unless you are a keen Wagnerian (or, like a delighted twelve-year-old boy near us, well up on Marvel comics) it is prudent to Wikipedize a swift refresher on what happens in the Eddas to Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya, Baldur and the rest of the Asgard set. Remember the difference between Nibelheim and Midgard, why the gods hate the giants though related to them, and why the tree Yggdrasil matters. If you prefer to come to it cold, sit back and accept that hairy Norsemen round winter fires had to make up something to explain their violent weather and volcanoes, and entertain themselves. And us: not least because Oliver Hoare’s vigorous Loki looks more like Russell Brand every minute, and it is gratifying to imagine Brand being held over a volcano with a magic eagle pecking his liver, or being electrocuted by Thor using a moose’s antlers as a lever.
Amid all the roaring uncouthness (Theo Ogundipe a fabulous Thor, Gracy Goldman a foxy provocative Freya) it is fascinating to notice elements echoing Christian or classical myth: significant apples, sexual misconduct, miscegenation, disguises, even an oracle: Sarah Thom in an alarming spidery-raggedy outfit with a rat-skull in her headdress and a lot of booming echo. Antony Gabriel’s Odin is striking, as is Frigga his wife (Fiona Putnam): they’re the only ones allowed a trace of nobility. The rest – apart from the necessarily bland goodie Baldur – roister and fight intemperately, and when the walls of Asgard need mending are stupid enough to hire a disguised enemy who demands the sun and moon as payment (Josh Elwell, particularly adept at suddenly turning into a huge puppet giant).
Well, you get the idea. It rolls along to a spectacular final doom, with flame and shocks and drumming. I can’t entirely admire Way’s text: sometimes it takes off in poetic epic flights or adds adds nice Anglo-Saxon constructions like the mason’s horse – “tail-swinger, grass-muncher, stone-shifter”. But when it descends into slangy modernism the bathos grates without amusing. But the narrative is always clear, even if some side-stories need a cut. And the death of innocent Baldur, with the fire-ship vanishing down the tunnel as the world sinks into “Axe-age, sword-age, wind-age, ice-age” finally brings a creepy sense of eternal themes, immolation and the world’s fall from grace.
And then you’re out into the dark concrete wastes of the old air base, monument to more recent follies. Brrrr.
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