Einstein on the Beach
Einsein on the Beach is a seminal piece of work in the body of late 20th century theatre. Having studied this piece thoroughly during a theatre studies in my undergraduate degree, I must admit that the opportunity to experience this five hour gargantuan work on the opening night of its UK premiere was approached with both excitement and an ounce of trepidation – could this still speak as clearly over 30 years after it first graced the stage in New York.
This Robert Wilson and Philip Glass collaboration first premiered in 1976. The performance artist and contemporary composer chose to elongate the production to such a length in order to overcome the necessity of narrative and instead to fuse the artistic genres into one piece. There has been a nearly 20 year gap since the last performance and while in certain areas such as stage design and language the time lapse shows, overall this piece somehow feels contemporary. Although the pace of this production is at times purposefully uncomfortable, it slowly enraptures the audience (well those who have the tolerance and stamina to remain) as they begin to adjust to the pace that the production sets.
Einstein on the Beach is comprised of a series of scenes whose meaning is widely meant to be individually interpreted. Glass describes the work as ‘a non-narrative, artificial theatre in which the function of narrative has shifted completely from telling a story to experiencing a story’. These multitude of scenes are linked by two ‘characters’ who chant random numbers or recite the autistic Christopher Knowles’ text. The scenes began as a series of drawings byWilson – a train scene, a courtroom, archetypal images of Einstein – to which Glass added his score. . The part of Einstein is played by a violinist, while some of the performers are both singers and dancers, with choreography by Lucinda Childs.
Upon this first night, there were a number of technical glitches: Wilson came on to apologise for the fact that we wouldn’t get the full effect.
The dane was brilliantly executed with great zest and determination. The chorus seemed to effortlessly handle Glass’s repetitive, closely-harmonised challenge. The Einstein fiddler’s endless riffs were hypnotic. The staging of this piece during the opening week of the “Bauhaus: Art as life” exhibition is brilliant. Both the Bauhaus and Wilson succeed in fusing a concept of total space, total theatre, and the possibility that art can be lived. While the Bauhaus elevated design to an artistic status that can be become an everyday reality, Wilson fuses a multitude of art forms – poetry, dance, music, theatre, design – into one breath-taking experience.
Until 13 May at the Barbican Centre – Barbican website.