Went with Gary to the Barbican to see Robert Wilson. Tom Waits. William Burrough’s The Black Rider.

Went with Gary to the Barbican to see Robert Wilson/Tom Waits/William Burrough’s The Black Rider.

I’ve had bad experiences with Robert Wilson before. I went to Berlin having seen clips of his work on telly and having fallen bodily in love with Einstein on the Beach when I was 17 at Sixth Form College. But when I finally saw a piece of his on stage I was left completely cold.

So I was a little apprehensive about this evening.

In fact it was a wonderful event. Even though Marianne Faithful was as wooden as a board – the rest of the cast were brilliantly Expressionistic and vivid. Wilson’s direction and staging was far from cold this time. It was beautiful in the way that a painting is beautiful. It doesn’t emote like a human body, but it chimes with certain inner patterns. It simply is. He’s often accused of making his actors marionettes. Perhaps it was the sleazy irregularity of Waits’ music or the choppy vernacular of Burrough’s words but the evening never became sterile, it was always filled with vitality – if not humanity.

The story is an old German myth – Weber’s Freischutz is based on it. In order to win his bride, a lover makes a pact with the devil to buy magic bullets so he can become the hunter his father-in-law is looking for. The final magic bullet – which the Devil controls – kills the bride. Burroughs twists this trope to encompass all runaway desires. All addictions = pacts with the Devil. And Wilson’s luminous detached, painterly setting of the text makes it all seem very potent. The last scene where Wilhelm aims for the dove but kills his bride is an agony of slow-motion white. And I found it quite emotional. In slowing every thing down and bleaching it out, Wilson gives a space where the audience’s own thoughts of loss and regret can start to fill the stage and twine around the imagery.

What struck me most forcibly however was the brilliance of the American performers. There’s a joy in the virtuosity of the voice and gesture that American actors have that is pitifully lacking on the British stage. Broadway incubates this wonderful confidence in the voice. So often British theatre seems embarassed of its theatricality, wretchedly afraid of being ‘showy’. The leads, Matt McGrath and Mary Margaret O’Hara were like fabulous instrumentalists of the body: gesture and voice. Just hearing them speak – even nonsense – was a emotional act. (Though to be fair, the Brit Nigel Richards was also astonishingly good.)

There’s too much emphasis on meaning in contemporary British theatre – there’s no respect for the wider power of gesture. I’m researching for a documentary at the moment about the Volksbuhne am Rosa Luxemburgplatz in Berlin just after the fall of the Wall – and looking at all the photos from those crazy, glorious productions by Castorf, Marthaler and Kresnik, really reminded me of my joy in good theatre. That theatre in particular made no concessions to normality or accessibility. Every show was a little mad universe: the ocean-liner wooden decadence of Marthaler’s Sturm with its musical structure, exact repititions and sudden eruptions of Renaissance polyphony; the 4 hours of Castorf’s Frau vom Meer with its electric guitar solos, assault course of a set and extreme attenuation of text; the sumptuous staging of Kresnik’s Macbeth with miked floors, orchestra pit full of offal, ballets of bathtubs. It was all ecstatically theatrical. And all about the immediacy of the gesture. The real presence of actors on stage in front of room of people. V-Effect extrem.

The moment when Matt McGrath walks along the narrow bar that separates orchestra from auditorium bellowing out the penultimate Waits’ song was one of those moments. I looked around the audience who were so close to him. It was one man singing, acting and hundreds of people watching. It was a unique, odd human interface. It needed no other meaning.

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