Einstein On the Beach — a 4.5hr avant-garde opus by Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs — @ the Barbican, London, 13 May 2012.
Paul Kilbey for One Stop Art:
It isn’t so much that Einstein on the Beach is impossible to summarise, I don’t think, as that it’s just impossible generally. At least, if you were to list this opera’s various constituent elements to somebody, and ask them if it was basically plausible, they would probably say no. Suffice it to say the following: it is four and a half hours long and there is no interval. It has no plot, yet it’s gripping, in a way. The text makes very little sense and relates to both Einstein and the beach only ever tangentially, and most of the time not at all. There is probably more choreography than singing, and none of the opera’s characters (to the extent that there are characters) sing at all. Also, it is one of the later twentieth century’s most ambitious and impressive artistic entities.It really doesn’t seem likely. But to experience it, you very much have to suspend disbelief anyway. Friday’s first-night performance at the Barbican Theatre was my first exposure to Einstein on the Beach, and it’s not an experience like many others.At one point, a woman lying on a large bed-like structure recites a short story about a recent visit to a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, where she noticed some plumed bathing caps which she was not tempted to buy. She repeats this short story many, many times, varying the intonation but never the words, while two prisoners nearby do a strange dance, and a number of people watch who I think are in a court. She gets up from the bed and, standing in front of the prisoners, tries on various items of clothing and flaunts a gun and a lolly, repeating the short story all the while. She leaves. A lawyer then does something similar but this time the text is long and disjointed and about Mr Bojangles.
The body of the opera is made up of a number of scenes which might loosely be described as similar to this. Einstein can sometimes be seen, sitting on a chair at the front of the stage, playing the violin. Between each of the scenes is a ‘Knee play’, made up of entirely abstract connecting material. Two of these are essentially ballet scenes, though somewhat more frantic and confused than any actual ballet, with dancers nipping off stage and back again haphazardly and frequently. Like most elements of the work, these dances betray a structural emphasis on pattern which utterly trumps concerns such as narrative, unity and coherence.It’s important to remember that Einstein isn’t just a Philip Glass project. It’s actually one of the most brilliantly successful artistic collaborations imaginable. It also makes a mockery of classification, being not so much ‘minimalist’ as ludicrously maximalist. Robert Wilson is the director and designer, and Lucinda Childs is the choreographer – and it was, in fact, the dancing which was most enthralling last night. Childs also wrote bits of the opera’s perplexing, circuitous text, though more of it is by poet Christopher Knowles. The ‘lyrics’ are credited to Glass. These are mainly counting, solfège and nonsense syllables. All aspects of Einstein prioritise pattern and sequence, but absolutely never in a fully logical way. The stylistic mix which emerges is unforgettable.This particular production – the first since 1992 – is from Pomegranate Arts, and is midway through a tour which has already visited France and Italy.
The Philip Glass Ensemble provide the music, under the direction of Michael Riesman, who has apparently led every performance of the piece ever, and unsurprisingly this musical account was immaculate. The performances of the spoken texts were no less immaculate, and the delivery from the principals – Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Charles Williams and the young Jasper Newell – was completely stunning, with a mechanistic, call-centre sort of air.
I hear the show went technical on the first couple of performances, but by the time I saw it, the production was flawless — lucky because seeing how elaborate and heavy on tech the set design was (some of the set changes were a bit clunky), I could easily imagine how a serious technical cock up could come break our 4.5 hour-long concentration.
Yep, 4.5hrs. No interval. And I am not kidding when I say that there was not a single dull moment that could have been used as an excuse for a toilet break. A mere five-minute absence would alone justify having to buy another ticket and see the opera a second time — N.B: I say opera, but that’s really not a good word to define it…musical theatre piece?… or giant epic avant-garde fest? yes, that’s more like it.
I got sucked in pretty much instantly — something to do with the repetitive patterns that I find hypnotic. I’m also rather drawn to the absurd and the incomprehensible. It gives you license to shut down your brain and not try too hard to understand what’s going on on stage. Because there’s nothing to understand, of course. You can sit back, relax, and get lost in the world of Wilson, Glass and Childs.
The two dance acts were particularly impressive, mainly because of the insane physicality and endurance the dancers had to demonstrate in order to sustain the relentless pace Lucinda Childs put them under. Add to that the rather frantic score Philip Glass chose to accompany the dance acts, and there you have it, rapturous applause.
+ 12 brilliantly expressive singers juggling with numbers and solfège syllables + the two main actresses (Helga Davis & Kate Moran) performing weird poetry with phenomenal style (I’ve been listening to the 1993 studio recording of Einstein On the Beach and I have to say that Davis and Moran’s delivery is much more compelling) + let’s not forget the awesome and haunting score, of course.
[photos courtesy of LuminatoEvents]