Friday 11 May 2012

Einstein on the Beach, or, Satirising the Form will Carry You Only So Far

I had in my head written a number of openings to this review before I left for the show (which of course one is not supposed to do). Given what I had read about it I anticipated ripping it to shreds as it seemed likely to fail fundamental requirements for my having an enjoyable evening. I even thought that it might finally be the show to shift the legendary Edinburgh Festival Three Sisters off its podium as worst show a Pollard has ever endured. But my reaction to it was nowhere near as extreme as this. I was neither bored out of my mind, nor ecstatic. There are a number of interesting, even some striking, things in this show but it does not stand up to four and a bit unremitting hours of scrutiny.

The first point that has to be acknowledged is that this is an opera. Some may well be discomforted by the idea of placing this piece alongside such operatic luminaries as Mozart and Wagner but it is I'm afraid inescapable. Glass clearly has a knowledge of the form – arias, choruses, orchestral interludes are all to be found here.

To a certain extent the way this piece plays with operatic conventions and styles is engaging. The libretto is (until the very last scene) almost entirely meaningless – or at least extremely ambiguous – and there are plenty of operatic librettos that are not far from that or are nearly rendered to that state by being set to music. Numbers are placed in no particular order, cannot reinforce emotions or plot (because basically there is none of either) and again, as the piece goes on one feels that, on one level, a big joke is being had at the expense of the unrealism of the form.

The conceit is supported by some very striking visuals – indeed far more striking visuals that one often gets in the average operatic staging. Much of the set is impressively moved around on wires, performers become airborn on several occasions and there is a sense of joy about the design which is actually quite refreshing. I shall remember for a long time the moonlit train carriage simply for its visual impression.

The final big point in the show's favour is the extraordinary commitment shown by performers and band. This must be an utterly exhausting show to be in but they never reveal fatigue. I would particularly single out Kate Moran's Character 1 who has an especially expressive face and who frequently manages to give point to the text despite its determined lack of it – her repeated monologue about bathing caps is the most effective single moment in the piece.

But all of this does not, regrettably, a great modern opera make. The first big problem is the ultimate thinness of Glass's musical inspiration, about which a number of other critics have already commentated. Having listened to one of his repeated phrases once you have pretty much heard all he has to offer. The repetition may be the central point – but four hours of it is frankly asking it to support more than it is capable of. Very occasionally, and oh what a blessed relief it is, Glass discovers that other instruments beyond synthesiser and violin are available. About three quarters of the way through there is a section for what sounded to me like improvised saxophone and it is the musical highlight of the piece (I would be curious to know whether this is actually notated by Glass, or whether the instruction simply tells the saxophonist to improvise).

This same issue of repetition which tires applies to staging and movement – much of it is impressive – but when you're watching a train moving with painful slowness from stage right to stage left for the third time, or dancers repeating a very long (and not terribly choreographically inspired) dance number they already did about an hour before one's interest starts to falter. Just about every scene in this show overstays its welcome – and by the time we got to the third act I increasingly felt that Glass and Wilson simply did not know how to stop.

And finally there is the problem of meaning. This is a show basically without characters, without plot and without emotion. It says a great deal for some of the other qualities I've mentioned that I did not come out wanting to murder its creators. It also might be regarded as the holy grail for all those wretched modern opera and theatre directors who seem determined to attempt the removal of those things from plays and operas in which they are more abundant. Indeed, I began to think in the course of this show that I had found the solution to this problem – next time an artistic director thinks he should do something new and avant garde, instead of destroying a classic by a production totally at variance with text and music, he should just put on Einstein on the Beach where there are no characters, plot or emotion for the production to be at variance with. To get back to this show, however, the point is that not having these things means that there is not that sense of production at odds with the work which so often happens and which makes me want to scream. This is a strength, but for me, ultimately, there is a barrenness to it, and this was brought home to me most forcibly by the final scene.

For the first time we actually get a coherant bit of narrative in the libretto about two lovers talking about how much they love each other. Sadly it gradually becomes clear that the intention here is to mock any such silly love talk. Obviously this is again playing with the form. But it seems to me, as it has often seemed to me in productions of operas and plays which end up mocking the text and music that there is an emptiness to this. To put it at its most basic one may well say that such declarations of love in opera or straight theatre are ridiculous. But I think there is something powerful and moving about those dreams. Real life is bleak enough. And I do not think such declarations are merely silly.

Thus, there is entertainment in this show. There are fine performances. There are some moments of visual and aural beauty. But lacking heart and humanity this is ultimately, for me, a failure.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your review, and agree with much of it, though at the best moments (such as the moonlit train carriage) I did feel a certain emotional force emanated from the faux-charcaters and their faux-arias, even though they were only emitting the basic building blocks of sound and language.

I thought the endurance problems were exacerbated by the formality of the theatre environment. The 'come and go as you please' thing didn't really work - too awkward, too dark, too English - but more improtantly I felt the piece called for the audience to be lounging around perhaps with drinks and a little conversation rather than sitting in the conventional way. I would even have liked to dance a bit!

Love it or hate it, to me this is the interesting part of Philip Glass's career - not the endless reams of mush that he has produced in recent years.

Finn Pollard said...

@mangofantasy - glad you enjoyed the review and interested to read your comments. I think you're right about the space being wrong (Barbican Theatre is more than usually problematic for getting in and out of apart from anything else). However, I'm not at all sure it would lead me to change my overall view about the piece!

I actually don't know any of Glass's other work. I missed Satyagraha at ENO and I haven't listened to any of his work on CD. With my Americanist hat on I shall probably try and catch the Walt Disney opera at ENO next year.

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