Oh les beaux jours

Welcome to Wilsonland

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 18.09.2008

Robert Wilson is back in Luxembourg to direct Adriana Asti in Samuel Beckett’s Oh les beaux jours. And then, on Thursday he will give a reading of Krapp’s Last Tape. A glorious way to open the season!

Ever since the 1960s his name has been connected with the avant-garde. He’s done it all: opera, dance, installations, video, musicals, vaudeville, film…. Again and again, he has crossed boundaries, surprised audiences and made theatre new. The sheer energy behind the multiplicity of his often epic projects is breathtaking. He describes his approach to the stage as instinctive: rather than start with the text of a play, he usually begins a production as a silent work, having the actors concentrate on movement. Chance does not come into it; any step taken, any slight change of posture is choreographed to the second. The precision and the rigour of his vision have strengthened Wilson’s reputation as an experimental perfectionist.

“I make theatre, not meanings,” he explains. Unlike slice-of-life realism, which makes audiences believe that they are actually inside a late 19th-century living-room or a 1950s kitchen, Wilson does not want anyone to forget that the stage is an artificial space. His productions involve you in unexpected ways and challenge many of your assumptions. Dreamscapes and mysteries will draw you out of your comfortable routine by raising questions about identity as well as about any false sense of security. 

Absolute Wilson, Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s film, concentrates on key elements in the director’s life: his growing up in a very strict Texan community in the 40s and 50s, the difficult father-son relationship, which he drew away from once he started studying architecture in New York… Then there is the work he did with brain-damaged children and later on with terminally ill patients and with people in mental institutions; these experiences made him question accepted standards of normality and look for forms of expression beyond the confines of language. The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, the performance company he founded in 1968, was to celebrate difference by bringing together people of various levels of intelligence and capacity.

Bob Wilson has always been eager to tread unusual paths. He also learnt a lot by entering the world of Raymond Andrews, the deaf-mute black teenager he adopted. And then, for some time he worked closely with Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet whose texts deconstruct language and bring in seemingly endless repetition.Since words turn out to be unreliable and fail to capture the complexity of human consciousness, problematising language is central to many of the productions. Wilson conjures silent images; he questions the relationship between language and reality, between pictures and words. Tone of voice, the sensuous experience of sound, the magic of unintelligible ritual language are all areas he explores.

“I work as an artist to ask questions… A play doesn’t conclude. The last word must be a beginning, a door opening, not closing.” Art is not about answers, it is about creating spaces. Surreal juxtapositions and the abstract, minimal beauty of architectural sets are key to it all. Wilson explains: “If you place a baroque candelabra on a baroque table, both get lost. You can’t see either. If you place the candelabra on a rock in the ocean, you begin to see what it is.” The strangeness of such visual puzzles will make audiences look in new ways. Shapes are crucial, as is light. “Light is in my theatre like an actor,” he explains. “Without light there’s no space… Light determines what you see and how you see it.”

On the Wilson stage there is invariably a tension between what you see and what you hear; disparate visual and verbal elements are woven together. When directing classic plays, he may transpose lines, intercut scenes, repeat sentences hypnotically or add interludes that will question the main text.

As an audience member, you are invited to adapt to the pace and to read movement patterns. Thus, you should certainly watch out for the emotions embedded in each of Winnie’s hand gestures next week! And finally, there is the type of bright humour that matters to both Wilson and Beckett. 

Source material: Absolute Wilson, a film by Katharina Otto-Bernstein, New Yorker Video; The Theatre of Robert Wilson by Arthur Holmberg, CUP 2004 (ISBN 0-521-36732-8)

Oh les beaux jours is at the Grand Théâtre on September 24 and 26; Robert Wilson reads Krapp’s Last Tape on September 25

Janine Goedert
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