Retina burns

Benedict Andrews at the 50th Edinburgh Festival and Fringe

From the 50th Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, Benedict Andrews conjures performances by Wilson, Bausch, Stein, Chaikin, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Hakutobo, Zofia Kalinska and Teatr Podrozy

In order to celebrate the 50th birthday of Edinburgh Festival, director Brian McMasters invited a core of elite theatre and dance artists to present works. As a young director this was a rare opportunity to see my heroes in action—Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch, Peter Stein and Robert LePage. With the cancellation of LePage’s Elsinore due to equipment failure and of Neil Bartlett’s Seven Sacraments due to illness, the Festival lost two of its brightest young stars. Their works promised a questioning of the boundaries of theatre and a meshing of performance with other forms—cinema and digital technology in Elsinore and the visual arts in Seven Sacraments. The Festival, instead, became a display of established auteurs.

The high priest of hi-tech aestheticism, Robert Wilson brought two productions that showed the present extremities of his work and a seeming fascination with the Modernist textuality via the high-fiction of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the playful, heavenly landscapes of the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts. Both productions were abstract and mesmeric. Orlando was a minimalist chiaroscuro composition with an epic solo performance from Miranda Richardson, and Four Saints a lollipop landscape saturated with cartoon colours and filled with flying sheep, elegant giraffes, punk acrobats and a chorus of sartorial saints and vaudeville comperes.

Orlando is a fascinating exemplar of Wilson’s recent experiments with narrative showing his refusal to illustrate text or display conventional emotion. Instead he writes a parallel text with gesture, architecture and light, which forces the audience to drop below the narrative and let its dream logic unfold. Woolf’s fantastical tale about a young lord who lives through 350 years of history and finds himself transformed into a woman is perfect fodder for Wilson’s explorations of time’s passing and history’s images. Orlando is performed by Richardson with androgynous tension and physical and vocal precision. Her voice is amplified giving it a mediated resonance and an alien-like quality. As words pile on top of words in her two-hour monologue, Richardson’s voice and Woolf’s language are fused into an independent and mercurial texture. Hans Peter Kuhn’s meticulous sound design allows Orlando’s voice to shift through speakers placed throughout the auditorium further accentuating the character’s disembodiment. Wilson’s lighting design draws inspiration from German Expressionist films and early Hollywood. At the beginning the stage is black, a light picks out the back of Richardson’s head for a moment, fades to black again, then lights her hand only. Parts of her body seem to float. Wilson continues to make light a performer throughout the piece, often using it to play with appearances and disappearances central to the questionings of identity and sexuality in the text. The light is always sculptural with tight follow spots lighting Richardson’s face, making her seem like a haunted Greta Garbo.

The space is a cross between minimalist painting and magic show. Wilson flies various gauzes and curtains to change compositions, creating chambers and multiple horizon lines. He also uses the set as a sequence of indices, which play with scale and meaning. A miniature automated door pops up through the floor to represent Orlando’s suitor, opening and closing in response to her questions. When Orlando changes into a woman, s/he does so behind a giant polished metal tree trunk which has slowly flown in. This phallic joke and pun on theatrical conventions demonstrates Wilson’s oblique and playful dramaturgy. His Orlando uses form to interrogate language and subjectivity. Richardson’s performance moulded into Wilson’s statuesque choreography shows the impact of history and time on the body.

Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s cubist opera Four Saints in Three Acts provides Wilson with a language that converges with his own use of autistic text, allowing him to create hallucinatory landscapes. He calls the piece “a meditation on the joy of life.” It is a series of free-associative pictures as various saints graze in a day-glo heaven. Snow falls on white cutout palm trees, biplanes fly by, angel statues drop in and giraffes bow their heads. It is classic make-of-it-what-you-will Wilson surrealism culminating with a ‘mansion of heaven’ (a giant white architectural model suspended above the stage) bursting into flames as the saints on stage hold miniature models in their hands. These are the light and beautiful ‘souls’ reflected on by Wilson and Stein in their meditation on saintliness, or ‘genius’ if you like.

Peter Stein’s production of Uncle Vanya with the Teatro di Roma and Teatro di Parma was the closest the Festival came to a well-made play (with the exception of Botho Strauss’ wonderfully well-unmade play Time and the Room presented by Nottingham Playhouse). Uncle Vanya is a masterpiece of orchestration combining passionate realism, hyper-naturalistic design and an ever-present soundscape, which highlights Stein’s inspired use of silence. Over three and a half hours he creates a terrifying passage of time within which the characters’ gradual disintegration and painful tearing of illusions are played out. The performances from the cast of handpicked Italian actors are detailed, yet elastic. Each character proceeds blindly from an unresolvable, unknowable lack; the impossibility of resolution fused with an acute awareness of the body’s aging creates a slow dance of death. Stein sees the play as containing the embryonic symptoms of all the systems and neuroses of the twentieth century. In this way his exacting analysis and evocation of the emotional lives of Chekov’s Russian bourgeois becomes an exploration of our own fin-de-siecle malaise.

Pina Bausch’s dance-opera of Gluck’s Iphigenia auf Taurus is also embryonic in that it was one of her first works created in Wuppertal in 1973. Re-presenting this early work shows her choreography when it was less a deconstruction of dance and the economy of desire and more aligned to narrative. It is an atavistic, emotionally raw piece obsessed with machinations of history and rituals of power. The opera soloists are placed in the gilded boxes of the theatre while the chorus sings from the pit. The dancers alone occupy the stage—a cavernous post-industrial chamber of beaten metal (into which, at times, the lighting rig is flown turning the tools of the theatre into instruments of imprisonment and torture). The libretto is a complex Greek tale of exile, enslavement, human sacrifice and death’s door family reunion. The representation of the barbaric state shows the influence of Heiner Müller’s catastrophic scenographies. The ruler, Thoas, a brutal and shadowy man with a shaved head enters doing a jerky, angular dance and wearing a giant leather trench coat. He disappears behind a hanging sheet and emerges without the coat, which is revealed standing of its own accord, a heavy, oppressive symbol. He is followed everywhere by a disturbing couple, an immaculately dressed bald man who stands downstage staring into the audience (our representative?) and a small, broken woman bedecked with jewels who carries a box of dirt which she smears over her face. The man repeatedly lifts her up forcing her collapsing body into submission. In this opera, Bausch reflects the deformed audience of patriarchy, while the story of mythic exiles begs us to love.

Other dance I saw in the Festival program included the Martha Graham Company, Netherlands Dans Theatre (who will be at the Melbourne Festival in October) and Hakutobo’s Renyo. Unfortunately the Martha Graham programme of works reconstructed from between 1918 and 1944 felt like a creaky and reverential museum piece. It seems Saint Martha has been canonised and her devotees have maintained the shape of her works, but lost the soul. Netherlands Dans Theatre’s programs, however, were fresh and provocative. Jiri Kylian’s ‘black and white’ works in particular are stark and intense, full of funky geometrics, seamless movement and erotic rituals. Bella Figura is a dance about performance and the space between dream and waking.

Vast open spaces are created with corridors of light, or the proscenium height and width is enlarged and reduced by black curtains to play with our gaze and the liminal zone between performer and audience. In one sequence two women naked, except for scarlet corselettes, are imprisoned by the curtain’s frame. They shyly and exquisitely come ever so close to caressing each other, but instead set each other in motion. The dance is razor sharp: robotic jolts, twitching limbs, slides and torsos twisted into impossible contortions. Kylian creates beautiful and provocative hieroglyphics.

Hakutobo is one of my favourite butoh companies and I enjoyed seeing their work Renyo—Far from the Lotus again. It is a complex and subtle work which elaborates on the jizo: stone statues of children found throughout Japan which are carved anonymously and placed by the roadside or rice paddy, left exposed to the rain, wind and snow. The dancers perform their decay and mutation. Akeno (whose outstanding performance is the core of the work) dances the body in perpetual flux, electrified, not moving but moved. She shudders and shimmers, seems to be a tiny infant all-agog and then an impossibly old woman or even a corpse decaying into the elements: becoming an-Other body.

Amongst the whirligig of the Fringe several productions demonstrated the raw power of the best of the Festival shows. Seeing Joseph Chaikin perform Beckett’s Texts for Nothing in the gutted shell of a Gothic church is an experience I will never forget. Beckett’s texts—about the body’s struggle with itself, with articulation, with the experience of nothingness and its attempts to remember—resonated in Chaikin’s own experience of losing speech and body control due to a stroke some years ago. [The sound of] his live, stuttering, struggling tongue was interspersed with an analogue recording of the texts made pre-stroke which was clear, controlled and precise creating an unmendable schizophrenia between past and present which absolutely echoed Beckett’s writing.

A similar solo performance of burning presence was given by Polish actress Zofia Kalinska (formerly of Kantor’s Cricot Theatre) in If I am Medea. Performed in a dark, filthy, ramshackle basement with a grilled window looking out onto a patch of ultra-green weeds and sunlight, the piece was a ‘séance’ in which Kalinska compared her life with Medea’s. Howard Barker’s production of his chamber play Judith performed by the Wrestling School (a company dedicated to his work) generated the collisions of sheer beauty and cruelty that his Theatre of Catastrophe requires.

Polish performance group Teatr Podrozy’s Carmen Funebre was a haunting and violent requiem about civil war and genocide. In the sombre courtyard of the university buildings they created a deeply moving physical theatre spectacle. ‘Civilians’ are searched out amongst the crowd by menacing masked figures on stilts who strip, separate and brutalise them. The piece is most powerful when it becomes a mourning for the dead—the performers each carefully carrying a tiny paper house with a pale flame burning inside, offering words of hope to the audience in broken English until tying balloons to the houses and watching them fly away into the Edinburgh night like prayers.

It was a Festival (and if you looked hard enough, a Fringe) of virtuoso theatre artists whose works demonstrated their mastery and maturity. Their works were a distillation and vivification of their careers—idiosyncratic, technically excellent and containing beautiful, disturbing images which burned the retina. The next generation of renegades (as these artists had once been) sadly cancelled or were ignored.

RealTime issue #15 Oct-Nov 1996 pg. 6

© Benedict Andrews; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1996