Thursday 12 May 2011

Robert Wilson and the power of the underdog

This week, along with “Narrative” and “Britain”, I've been wrestling with what I'd been thinking of as “The Problem of Robert Wilson”.

This came about as a result of seeing his Věc Makropulos at Stavovské Divadlo in Prague and absolutely hating it.

Věc Makropulos is a frivolous little thing by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek and was later turned into an opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

This version by Wilson is a massively pared-down version of the original text, but starring leading Czech opera diva Soňa Červená and with an extensive new score by Aleš Březina, who created the excellent, not un-Philip Glass-like score for the Czech show-trial verbatim opera Zítra se bude...(roughly: Tomorrow There Will Be...), also starring Soňa Červená.

But, mostly I was exciting to be finally seeing some Robert Wilson.

Yes, Robert Wilson is another party I've turned up late for. Granted, this isn't entirely my fault. His most important work, Einstein on the Beach (which is being re-done for the Barbican next year), premiered the year I was born, and hasn't been see-able anywhere for 20 years.

On the other hand, he's still working an awful lot since.

And this is where it gets tricky.

I suppose I've known that he was kind of a big deal for a while, but the last thing I remember coming/going to London was the Anglicised-cast version of his 1990 Thalia, Hamburg show Black Rider in 2004. Looking back at the reviews written at the time (Indie, Guardian, Shuttleworth for Teletext and again in Theatre Record) I remember a) not really having the first clue about Wilson's importance, b) not especially caring about Tom Waits (I still don't, really. Sorry), c) finding that the points made by the nay-sayers struck more of a chord than those made saying it was good, d) thinking it sounded a bit too much like a “super-group” and, perhaps most crucially, e) not really being anywhere near “proper-ish” critic enough to get a freebie (or, indeed, being on the treadmill/merry-go-round of seeing shows almost daily enough for this to bother me). And, as Shuttleworth and Billington note, Black Rider turned up off the back of an even more unloved Woyzeck.

Anyway, thanks to this variety of factors, I wind up getting to 35 without seeing any Robert Wilson, by which time, having been to a bunch of international festivals and talked to a lot more people (and, indeed, read a lot more stuff, including Chris Goode's long love-letter to Wilson's work on Thompson's Bank...), I'd gathered some unhelpfully epic expectations.

The other thing I'd gained, was the impression of Wilson being incredibly successful and powerful. Which isn't inaccurate. These days, it seems that Wilson can fly about the world, demand huge fees for his work, and essentially behave as if he is a genius beyond questioning. Not least because that's how other people seem to treat him (indeed, talking to Czech sources “close to the production” one got the impression of Wilson behaving with significantly less tact and local knowledge than the American army in Iraq).

Inevitably, none of this did much to endear the idea of the man (or at least Brand Wilson) to me.

Nor, annoyingly, did I subsequently find my attitude melted in the presence of his work.

I found it chilly, un-engaged, un-engaging unintelligent, and lazy.

At the same time, I was vaguely aware that this was a (the?) common criticism of his work.

This needed more research, so I watched the documentary Absolute Wilson which is excellent, at least for giving a sense of his early work and the comparative struggle it took for it to be made, but also for giving a rolling cavalcade of faces assuring you how important his work is.

Granted filmed footage of (Anglophone) theatre work tends to be unsatisfactory at the very least. But this did at least give a sense of what earlier work had looked like – what had been exciting and exotic about the stuff he'd made in the seventies, and also it gave a sense of the very different social context from which the work had sprung. This emphatically wasn't the world of Business Class lounges and exhorbitant fees.

Annoyingly, Absolute Wilson rather glosses the leaps between Wilson's struggles in America, his acceptance in Europe, the opening of Einstein on the Beach at the New York Metropolitan Opera in apparently pretty unfavourable conditions (“My father said to me, I didn't know you were even smart enough to lose $150,000”), and the leap to being in a position to be in charge of the Artisitic Programme meant to be run alongside the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the subsequent catastrophic tanking of his project Civil Wars. From there, it positively leaps to the 1990 success of Black Rider in Hamburg and beyond and then finishes pretty rapidly with a montage of the awards and honors bestowed upon Wilson Triumphant.

Watching the documentary made me think two things. One: that I wasn't especially sure that Wilson's somewhat geometric aesthetic was ever going to be wholly my thing, but that I was willing to give it another few goes. Two: that there was a much more interesting question concerning power-relations that seemed to go to the heart of how we (and by “we” here, I specifically mean “the English”, possibly “British”) view work. Both American, not least as evidenced by this documentary, and German culture, both have their own different difficult relationships with “power”, or “success” or “authority”.

If I was going to have a stab at characterising the British attitude, (and, yes, I appreciate this is going to entail some stupidly large generalisations, and probably some contradictions, so bear with me) to “power” and/or “success” (let alone “authority”), I think it would rest largely on what strikes me increasingly as a hard-wired cultural predisposition toward “underdogs”, coupled with a resolute antipathy toward “being talked down to”. It's a trait I definitely have myself, but it's also something I find myself noticing more and more in the discussion around theatre in Britain more generally.

On one level, it's something I admire and think is crucial to a lot of the good things about British theatre. The fact that there's often a very healthy attitude of “says who?” which allows people to start doing precisely what they like. On another level, it turns into a deeply unhelpful, corrosive attitude of dissmissal, insularity, and downright stupidity which makes it feel like any sort of change is nigh-on impossible.

I noticed it mostly when I started writing for the Guardian Blog, and later for Time Out etc. And now I notice it more in the comments people make about other writers there, and about the productions/artists they write about.

The thing is this. One might have a pretty sane picture of oneself as just one person with one person's opinion. But many people who comment on the Guardian blog have a very different conception of what the very fact of writing on it makes you. One is variously needed to be “an expert”, a Guardian staff member, a member of a powerful London-centric media elite, and a theatre critic.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me, was the discussions that would typically spring up around any article about Forest Fringe. Now, I know Andy Field and Deborah Pearson quite well. I was at the first day of the first Forest Fringe. I knew how big it was (not very), but also how important and inspiring I found it (very).

What was interesting is how quickly, almost instantaneously, after a bit of coverage by the Guardian, Forest Fringe went from being seen as a total outsider, worthy of a bit of championing and talking-up – it was, lest we forget, an almost impossibly foolhardy venture; programming a fortnight of free performances in a free venue, staffed entirely by volunteers – to being some kind of “new orthodoxy” and some sort of grotesque, overblown giant in serious need of cutting down to size. Much the same attitude seems to be applied, variously, to (for example): any Guardian bloggers, Katie Mitchell, Simon Stephens, Martin Crimp, Michael Billington, Matt Trueman, Chris Goode, etc. etc. etc. (obviously that's a fairly random list of the ones I just happen to notice).

Reflecting on how annoying I find this tendency when applied to the above, gives me pause when (to return to the subject) we get back to Robert Wilson.

Should perception, or even knowledge, of his position, colour my attitude to his work?

Here, I would argue there is a greater degree of relevance. The examples I give above are irritating, and stand out, primarily because of the degree of inaccuracy involved. The strange (and incorrect) perception of some bored souls that they are being persecuted by a tiny two-week venture into free Live Art (and more), is really not my problem.

Knowledge and understanding of how a piece of work has come into being, particularly if it accords with one's perceptions of how the work has failed, is of a different order.

As such, at the end of this perhaps unnecessarily lengthy bit of soul-searching, I draw the following conclusions:

a) I'm not sure I would have ever been a huge fan of Robert Wilson's aesthetic sensibilty.

b) If I ever would have been, it would probably when he was far more mentally and bodily immersed in its creation from start to finish, and it would have been during a time when his work really was new and original.

c) Theatre seems oddly resistant to being mass-produced.

Now, with any luck, having got that off my chest, I'll be able to look at Wilson's Lulu (currently playing at the Berliner Ensemble), his Deutsches Theater Woyzeck (going to Nottingham's NEAT festival in June) and his forthcoming new Manchester International Festival piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic with an open mind.

(although, just clicking through to the MIF website for the link and seeing another “avant garde super-group” cast does make my cynicism reflex crunch somewhat...)

Edit: I suppose “d)” might be something to do with my increasing feeling that I function better as a critic when trying to understand as fully as possible what a work is trying to do before writing it off. But I dare say that'll turn into a whole other piece sometime soon.

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