Robert Wilson at the London 2012 Festival
Preview piece for the festival brochure, 2012
The director Robert Wilson turned 70 years old last year. A legendary figure in New York's avant garde theatre scene, he is one of the few artists who genuinely seems to fit the description of 'renaissance man'. Wilson has brought an architect's eye to theatrical spectacle, a dancer's precision to stage movement and a philosopher's intelligence to text and language. His ambitious work has reached beyond the typical stage experience to include performances on mountain tops, immersive installation pieces and collaborations with artists as diverse as the singers Tom Waits and Jessye Norman and the writer William Burroughs.
Wilson's work is represented during the festival by three contrasting pieces - a revival of his opera (with Philip Glass) Einstein on the Beach, his version of Samuel Beckett's haunting monologue masterpiece, Krapp's Last Tape, and a brand new site-specific work, Walking.
Einstein on the Beach is the monumental work which made both Wilson's name and that of Philip Glass in 1976, immediately establishing them as completely individual artists. Nominally an opera, it does away with all theatrical conventions. For example, the work runs continuously for about 5 hours; the audience are free to come and go as they wish.
Rather than being a straightforward biography of the physicist, it presents a visually striking sequence of recurring images: a a train, a trial, a building and a spaceship, leaving the audience to find their own connections with their knowledge of Einstein and his work. In Wilson's words, "We all know stories about him. We come to the theatre sharing something, so in a sense there was no need to tell a story". Instead, the piece is dominated by dancers, Glass' glowing, mesmerising music, and dream-like texts by the autistic poet Christopher Knowles ("I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket...").
The vibrant, multi-disciplinary nature of Einstein... finds its shadowy opposite in Krapp's Last Tape. Beckett's highly condensed, deeply atmospheric play (written in 1958) takes place in a single room, at an unidentified date in the future. An old man listens to recordings of his more youthful voice, summoning both wry nostalgia and bitter regret. Wilson's infamously creative use of lighting and set design make this a unique production, featuring a rare appearance by Wilson as an actor.
Wilson's new project, Walking, promises to be a characteristically unusual and unforgettable experience. Eschewing the theatre for the wide-open vistas of the North Norfolk coast, participants will be led through a landscape dotted with sculptural forms, highlighting our relationship with nature. This dramatic part of the British coastline echoes Wilson's epic theatrical sensibilities, but is also a personal journey. Each member of the audience is led individually by guides, through both sand dunes and woodland.
As he moves into his 8th decade, Wilson's work remains as creatively adventurous and engaging as ever. These three performances should give British audiences an ideal opportunity to see why he has been such an invigorating spirit for theatre, music and art.
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