When it comes to avant-garde and über stylized stage performances of minimal aestheticism, Robert Wilson is The Master. Teaming up with legendary figures by crossing the boundaries of stage/film (Willem Dafoe) and dance/choreography (Mikhail Baryshnikov), he creates sparks of energy laden with high expectations. I sensed this excitement walking through the red hall auditorium of deSingel, the Flemish centre of contemporary arts, in Antwerp. I let the energy flow and tickle my toes taking my seat, third row centre; ideally I would sit a few rows back towards the middle for perfect peripheral vision, but not this time… this time I wanted to see details like creased costumes, smudged make-up and droplets of saliva flying; I wanted to breath in some of the stardust and nest a few tiny particles resting on my lapel… I mean, Willem and Misha were together on stage; oh, yes, I was starstruck!
”The Old Woman” is an adaptation by American novelist Darryl Pinckney, of a short novella by Daniil Kharms (30 December 1905 – 2 February 1942), an early Soviet-era absurdist poet, writer and dramatist; a literary figure I had no prior knowledge of and an absurd russian writing which seemed an unlikely choice for a stage play, even by Wilson’s standards. A quick background check shed light and cleared the mist: while discussing with Wilson about working on a project with Russian background, it was in fact Baryshnikov who came across the novella. So, although the play bears Wilson’s unmistakable signature right down to the design of the curtain, it is actually a co-production between Baryshnikov Productions, Change Performing Arts (production company based in Milan and long term collaborator) and Wilson’s Watermill Center.
Daniil Kharms (real name: Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev) was born in St. Petesburg, in turbulent times. Part of the avant-garde scene in Soviet literature, he suffered through Stalinist rule for most of his short life. Eventually he was arrested, sent to the Gulags and killed. Or, most probably, was left to starve to death; he was only 36. While ”The Old Woman”, a satirical political novella written in the 1930s, is considered one of his finest and longer works, Kharms produced a lot of very short writings, some of them no more than one paragraph long. And when the regime made life impossible for the avant-garde absurdists, he tried to make a living from poems and stories for children; these works are well known and loved to this day by many, whereas his other writings were all but forgotten until the 1970s.
Not bad for a fellow who was privately disgusted by children – and old women for that matter – so much as to declare: “I don’t like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle-aged. To poison children – that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them! … I respect only young, robust and splendiferous women. The remaining representatives of the human race I regard suspiciously. Old women who are repositories of reasonable ideas ought to be lassoed… Which is the more agreeable sight: an old woman clad in just a shift, or a young man completely naked? And which, in that state, is the less permissible in public? … What’s so great about flowers? You get a significantly better smell from between women’s legs. Both are pure nature, so no one dare be outraged at my words.”
”Noble” feelings that Kharms makes sure to share with the reader in ”The Old Woman”. You see the theatre of the absurd?
Wilson’s stage version is a play in twelve acts and an epilogue, Dafoe and Baryshnikov following the story of a writer whose obsessive-compulsive behaviour throws him in a vicius whirlwind of anxiety and daytime nightmares, concerning the death of The dreary Old Woman.
Drama, comedy, slapstick, political satire, references to vaudeville and Noh Theatre, are flawlessly interchanged under Wilson’s expert direction and superbly played by the two performers, act after act. Roles keep switching, dark passages give way to hilarity, spirituality to a sense of practicality, omnipresent hunger to nevermind drunkenness, the absurdness of the story accentuated by slow movement and constant repetition (Wilson at work), from american English to poetic Russian and back.
Reviews varied from ”remarkable” to ”unmemorable”, ”cold” and lacking ”narrative momentum”. I beg to differ with the critics. Behind their tight fitting costumes, white clown-like make-up and corkscrew hairdos rendering them almost unrecognizable, Dafoe’s masterful interpretation was unmistakable and Baryshnikov’s graceful movement of an accomplished ballet dancer, unmissable. The chemistry between them remarkable and their performances seamless and powerful. Wilson’s masterful manipulation of light, music and props, aided by Hal Willner’s (another longterm collaborator) resourceful music, were as expected, a visual marvel; every scene a tableaux vivant of jaw dropping beauty.
A dynamic performance right to its witty, charming end. Demanding maybe, but the performers seemed to enjoy themselves infinitely; and so did I. I could have stayed put for another hour enjoying every second of it; this may have been one of Kharms’ longer writings, but at 90 minutes, definitely one of Wilson’s shortest productions.
Defying critics looking impatiently at their watches halfway through, mine was a replica of The Old Woman’s watch that night: one that had no hands.
An old woman is holding a clock in her hands, standing in a courtyard. I stop when passing her by and talk to her: “What’s the time?”
“Have a look,” she replies.
I look but cannot see the clock’s hands.
“It has no hands,” I say.
She looks at the clock’s face and says: “The time now is quarter to three.”
“Is that so? Thank you very much,” I say, and walk away.
Images by Konstantinos Implikian and courtesy of Google.