Eastern Angles’ play Ragnarok takes audiences into the hall of the Norse Gods
- Credit: Lucy Taylor
A Suffolk theatre company will be putting us back in touch with our Saxon heritage next week when they stage a Norse epic at RAF Bentwaters which has echoes of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to the writer and the director of Ragnarok
Eastern Angles, the Suffolk-based touring theatre company, knows that the history and heritage of East Anglia makes for first-class drama.
Over the years they have pursued Margaret Catchpole from Shingle Street to Australia, been chased by Black Shuck and recreated the changing people of Rendlesham Forest who lived at the junction of Bentwater Roads.
They have gone into battle with Boudicca, welcomed home the herring fleets of Lowestoft and charted the changes in the countryside in a series of plays based around The Reapers Year.
In 1997, they embraced Suffolk’s biggest historical legacy in The Wuffings, a massive site-specific production which looked at the life and death of the great Saxon King Raedwald, who is said to be interred in the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
This huge production, staged at Notcutts warehouse in Parham, near Wickham Market, proved to be a huge success and now Eastern Angles are looking to return to the county’s Anglo-Saxon heritage with another epic, Ragnarok.
Whereas The Wuffings was all about Suffolk’s early residents living alongside the River Deben, Ragnarok is all about their Gods – the Norse deities of Thor, Odin and the duplicitous Loki.
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Written by Eastern Angles regular Charles Way, who penned The Long Way Home, the play looks at the intrigues and double-dealing that shaped the turbulent lives of the Norse Gods. The play is being directed by Hal Chambers, a graduate of the Bristol Young Vic Young Directors Programme, and an experienced creator of family theatre.
The play is a collaboration of two creative minds working together to create a vast mythological landscape populated by larger-than-life characters which allow us to see reflections of ourselves.
Hal said that the script both tempted him and challenged him. “Charles’ script was one of the most epic and challenging I had ever read and it was impossible to resist. I knew immediately that we were going to have to use puppets just to make it work because the script contained some of the most extraordinary stage directions I had ever read.
“For example at one point Loki, who is the trickster god, is dangled over a smoking volcano by an eagle. How on Earth do you realise that? You have to use puppets.
“It’s an extraordinary script. There are bold stage directions and they need a bold, theatrical world. It needs to be told in a distinct theatrical language. We obviously can’t create a real smoking volcano but we can create something that will have the atmosphere and feel of it and we will be staging the end of the world but not as you know it. A lot of this is done through the music, the lighting, the set, the props it all combines to create atmosphere. That’s the power of theatre it allows you to see things from different perspectives whereas film is much more literal.”
Charles added: “It’s a large scale piece of epic theatre. Ragnarok, means the Twilight of the Gods, and the story details the end of their kingdom – in the end it destroys itself.”
Hal said that another of the attractions to doing the play was bring to stage it in the vast Hush House at RAF Bentwaters. “Part of the appeal for me, when I was asked to direct this play, was the space. The Hush House is extraordinary. The idea that it was originally designed to test jet engines that would then be used for a military purpose chimed really well with the themes of the play. It’s about this endless conflict between the gods and the giants and between them they destroy their world because there can never be a winner. You only have to turn on the television and you can see this state of affairs mirrored in at least three or four parts of the world every day. Ragnarok is the end of all things.”
Charles said that he wanted to write a play that got inside the Norse legends. He wanted to write a play about these all-powerful beings and by doing so find out how the creators of these legends were actually writing about humanity.
He said: “We don’t deal with any human beings. In Wagner’s take on these stories it’s very much about the Gods and their relationship with men. Our story is about the Gods internal workings. It’s their story and how they relate to one another. It’s all set on Asgard, which is the Citadel of the Gods. This is where Odin lives. It is his kingdom. This is where the hall of Valhalla is situated – and it’s about the power struggle within their family dynasty. It’s a big Game of Thrones type battle except the Gods have superpowers. They are larger-than-life figures who are constantly fighting another race of giants. They are constantly at war and their universe is in constant turmoil.”
He said that one of the fascinating elements of the play was that the seeds of Valhalla’s destruction are sewn very early on with the death of Alder, this perfect God and son of Odin.
“Odin doesn’t want his kingdom to fall, he is aware that the end is coming and yet he is utterly incapable of preventing the inevitable.
“It’s rather like the lead up to the First World War. It has a lot of analogies with that. How do we get ourselves ready for worldwide Armageddon? We don’t want it to happen but how to we prepare for the inevitable? This is the question the play is posing.”
He added that, as with many historic stories, they contained warnings to the listener about humanity’s character flaws.
“Odin is capricious, Loki is devious and there is betrayal and the stories are full of the type of things you would pick up in any court – greed, ambition, lust – it’s all there. There is murder and treachery at every turn.
“Every human weakness is there but what I have tried to do – the irony of the play is that Odin knows that his world going to come to an end, but every time he tries to delay, by some mishap, he manages to bring the end closer.”
Hal said that Charles Way had written a very rich script which has allowed him a lot of room for interpretation and visual invention. “This is very filmic. For anyone who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings movies you will find a lot of echoes in the images we present. It was the Norse mythology that inspired those tales by Tolkein. I make a lot of family theatre work and children are used to making huge leaps with you. They live in their imagination and that’s what we are asking the adult audiences to do.
“The giants, who are the mortal enemies of The Gods, will be portrayed by puppets. We don’t have a cast of thousands, so we have to find other colourful and inventive ways of creating these strange creatures.
“We have a set which is very clever which means we don’t have to be literal. We can be abstract, bold and creative and that’s great because it invites the audience to come on the journey with us and fill in the gaps. This is the beauty of theatre because you can conjure up a world with very little because you are harnessing the collective imagination.”
Another area of the story which attracted Hal’s attention was the notion that there wasn’t a hero or villain. “At first glance you would expect Odin to be the good guy and Loki, the devious trickster, would be the baddie but as the play develops you find yourself agreeing with some of the things that Loki is saying. You can understand where he is coming from and Odin is seen to be increasingly unreasonable. So, like life, everything is not black and white but rather various shades of grey and is much more interesting as a result.
“Charles is very clever because he makes these gods incredibly human. Odin realises that he is indeed fallible and spends much of the play trying to prevent the inevitable collapse of his world and in so doing he realises he is as mortal as the rest of us. I think if audiences come out of The Hush House arguing who’s right and who’s wrong then we would have done well.”
Charles said that as with all epic Saxon tales there has to be death – the Norse legends celebrated death – but unlike the real-life death rituals at Sutton Hoo, there is no ship burial for the big funeral scene.
“In the play, our ship isn’t buried in the earth, in classic fashion it is launched out onto the water and fire arrows are aimed at it and the whole craft is set ablaze. It’s rather like the death of Arthur. The whole play has that mythical feel to it. It’s a genuine family drama which reconnects us all with our roots.”
Hal agrees: “We want audiences to feel that this is a new version of an old story. There are many echoes of our modern world. For example Freya is the celebrity, she is the goddess of sex and fertility, she comes in as this big glamorous celebrity with everyone hanging on her every word but by the end no-one really wants to hear from her. Both her and Loki, who is an engaging rogue, seem very modern. It’s a very timeless story.”
Ragnarok, by Charles Way, will be staged by Eastern Angles at The Hush House, RAF Bentwaters, from September 11-28.