Review: Einstein on the beach

An astonishing production at the Barbican

Barbican Theatre 6.20pm, Friday 4 May, 2012

The Duke of Wellington once observed that just because a man is born in a stable it doesn’t make him a horse. It’s an argument that could easily be made of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Born at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1976, and intended (rather optimistically) by Wilson to fall “within the traditional repertory of opera”, this non-narrative, five-hour, musico-dramatic spectacle is at first encounter more installation art than opera as we know it.

Revived by its original creators for the first time in 20 years, and currently receiving its UK premiere run at the Barbican Theatre, Einstein is guaranteed to polarise audiences. Taking into account not only Glass’s wilful, beautiful score, but a confounding collage of a libretto and Wilson’s obscure visual formalism, anyone surrendering to the experience must inevitably ask – is this really opera? And if so, is it any good?

As ever with Glass, questions prove more useful than any attempt at an answer. As the first truly abstract opera, Einstein on the Beach offers an immersive and vehement rebuttal of all our expectations. It insists visually, aurally and theatrically that we give in to an unfamiliar pace and process – a process that doesn’t just enact the drama, but that is the drama.

We watch a glowing horizontal bar of light (whether an altar, window, the hand of a clock, or just a bar) rise slowly to the vertical, a clock cycles through 24 hours, a moon passes behind a cloud and eventually emerges again. Time passes, and Wilson’s is time in the Bergsonian sense – the time of Woolf’s The Waves or Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night – the impossibly fluid, endlessly plastic durée rather than the clock-time of temps.

The figures in these living tableaux are no less inscrutable. A cast all dressed as Einstein project an unsettling lack of individuality, as though workers in Wilson’s own totalitarian vision. Movements are drawn from a limited physical vocabulary of robotic gestures – sharply curved elbows, convulsive kicks and unnatural angles – animating the scenes with unsettling beauty. Only the two Field Dances (performed by the Lucinda Childs Dance Company to Childs’ own choreography) escape these physical restrictions, mirroring Glass’s additive patterning in their complex sequences of movement.

The characters grasp after self-expression and communication but find Glass’s anti-lyrical phrases set only to the empty syllables of solfege, numbers, or Christopher Knowles’ associative and fragmented texts, with their stories that go nowhere and their recurring images of sailboats, trains and love. Wilson transports us from a train to a courtroom to a panoptic tower, offering us carefully curated images and characters but leaving them strangely unframed, unmoored from meaning.

But Wilson’s “theatre of images” cannot stand alone; integrated absolutely into the shifting planes of action is Glass’s score. The composer’s resistance to the term “minimalism” can be clearly felt here as he explores everything from a Bach-referencing organ fantasia to a jazz-inflected saxophone solo (from a defiantly vibrant Andrew Sterman). Playing with the minimalist principle of subtlety, it is variation not repetition that emerges as the dominant structure.

The tonic triad, usually harmony’s home and point of resolution, becomes so denatured, so distorted in Glass’s circling arpeggios as to become a source of tension. Fulfilment is endlessly deferred, but rather than frustrating the listener the constant harmonic possibility of the score is exciting and addictive. This is subjunctive composition, music that asks us to speculate, to finish thoughts and sentences that Glass only whispers. And whereas the same processes in the later Satyagraha become inescapably yoked to a pseudish, mystic-philosophical agenda and narrative, here they are allowed to flourish in the endless possibilities of abstraction.

Pre-dating the video technology and techniques that have become the mainstay of contemporary stage works, thirty-odd years on Einstein on the Beach looks all the better for its analogue simplicity. Dressed up in digital trickery the work would lose its clarity, the purity of symbol and image that give it its allusive power. It is ironic then that the work should be so let down by contemporary technology on press-night, with an unscheduled interval needed and certain flying elements not even attempted.

But it was a small flaw in an otherwise astonishing evening. The generosity of Wilson’s invention and imagery, coupled with a score whose apparent restrictions are gradually revealed as nothing of the kind, creates a phantasmagoria whose minimalism is more maximal than anything you’ll see on stage this year.

So is Einstein opera? Probably not, and that in both the best and worst of ways. Lovers of the voice will chafe at the mechanistic brutality Glass subjects it to, a more defiant rejection of melody than even the most extreme contortions of Stockhausen or Boulez. Yet lovers of opera as the all-embracing gesamkunstwerk of a genre will recognise something almost Wagnerian about Glass and Wilson’s creation. A melding of image and music more absolute than anything we’ve seen in the opera house before or since. It’s not opera, but in the same way that Yohji Yamamoto’s designs are not fashion, or Don Quixote is not a novel, it is beyond opera.

Photograph: © Lucie Jansch
Getty
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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