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
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage