I worry when I head into shows known for their duration. If the most titillating aspect Wagner’s Ring Cycle is its sixteen hours, I have no desire to see it. Einstein On The Beach does come with a warning, whispered with all the relish of a scandalous secret: ‘It last almost five hours – and NO interval! Just think!’ Holding this against a work makes me feel like a belligerent old lady, but the duration of Einstein is a different beast altogether – and it was the first element of this magnificent production to win me over. This is not theatre that happens to have gone on for five hours; rather it is five hours of your life during which you disappeared into a rabbit hole and entered a world where nothing was as it seemed. What is more, from the very beginning of this epic night, it became clear that the creators truly wanted their audience to be hyperaware of time. It is a far cry from Wagner, whose masterpiece comes with the echoes of an egomaniac‘s delirious shout: “I shall tell the GREATEST story that has ever been told! It will be so amazing that I shall hold them spellbound for ten – NO! – SIXTEEN hours!” The work of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs has a sense of calm deliberation: a desire for the audience to slow their metabolism down to the pace of the performance, to immerse themselves in a world where rules we took for granted such as time, narrative hierarchy and even gravity, work differently. Rather than hoping that the viewer will be so engaged that they will be held in thrall, the collaborators deliberately make you hyper-aware of the passing of time and allow you to go and go as you please. Motifs such as clocks, a slowly waxing moon and music of metronomic precision keep it ever-present until, at a certain point, it begins to warp: the clock runs backwards, the globe you have watched slowly creep down from prompt-side halts its descent and remains invisibly suspended in both space and time. This suspension could perhaps be the perfect metaphor for the opera.
Einstein’s treatment of time beautifully emphasises the perfection of this collaboration. The key contributing artists came together at a point in their careers when they were fascinated with time and duration: Robert Wilson was known for creating epics sometimes lasting as long at seven days, while much of Philip Glass’s music feels like an auditory trick: the musical equivalent of running on the spot, frantic but remaining motionless, defying conventional ideas of climax and resolution, crescendos and cadences. It is often said of modern audiences that our attention span – due to the pervasive influence of television and cinema and the 140 characters of tweet – is shifting and shortening. With this in mind, I was fascinated to note that – more than thirty years after it was first premiered – Einstein on the Beach still knows how to hold its audience. Indeed, these artists seem like scientists working in the field of human concentration: they know just how far to push us before offering a shift, a joke, or augmenting the image. For this reason, I was very surprised to hear that, during rehearsals for this re-mount, Robert Wilson is said to have leant over to the co-director of the tour, Ann-Christin Rommen, and commented that it was ‘was long’. Fortunately, he was dissuaded from changing anything and so the integrity of the original production remains intact for this re-mount.
The unification of this production was remarkable and certainly must be ranked as one of its greatest achievements. In dramatic theatre the plot is god and a director, its high priest. In this post-dramatic masterpiece, however, no single element was elevated above any other: dance, music, set and lighting all supported each other as equals. This was brought home to me through the singers’ use of solfege. Commonly used in the learning or sight-reading of music, solfege is about precision and technique and provides singers with a chance to work devoid of meaning or creative expression, giving their complete focus to the purity and accuracy of the notes. The choreography was the kinaesthetic equivalent of solfege and the dancers, the physical match of the singers’ voices: exquisite technicians, clean and stripped back, all serving the work without ego, flash or flourish. Lucinda Childs’ choreography saw her troop dance with the bare elements of ballet: pivots, leaps and quick, skipping steps with no dramatic arch, seeking no empathy from the audience. As with Glass’s score, there was no climax or resolution.
In stripping away that most human of all elements, narrative, the performers were dehumanised (although I will come back to this point) and again, all elements of the production supported this decision: Glass’s phrasing left no room for the required breath, Childs’ choreography was mechanically unrelenting and Wilson’s staging made the human bodies merely another part of the picture.
Einstein on the Beach was not created in a vacuum, and it works with the expectations created by what came before it, giving us a cheeky wink, even as it crushes those expectations. This is in keeping with the writing of Hans-Thies Lehmann (who, incidentally, places Robert Wilson’s name at the top of his list of influential post-modern practitioners). In struggling to define post-modern theatre, Lehmann wrote in 1999 (published in English, 2006) that the very term ‘post-modern’ acknowledges the memory of the modernists:
“The prefix ‘post’ indicates that a culture or artistic practice has stepped out of the previously unquestioned horizon of modernity but still exists with some kind of reference to it. This may be a relation of negation, declaration of war, liberation or perhaps only a deviation and playful exploration of what is possible beyond this horizon.”
What I didn’t expect from this inhuman (as opposed to inhumane) theatrical experience was the humour. Aside from the face pulling – sudden grimaces and soulless, toothy beams – there was a certain amount of laughing at the opera’s own form and the audiences’ expectations of narrative and form, for which I was most grateful. An example of such referential humour could be found in Train, perhaps the most oppressive act. Coming early in the piece, the music is Glass at his most insistent and the audience watches Katie Dorn’s unrelenting ‘perpendicular dance’ for so long that it almost feels cruel. From time to time, however, the music would falter, the lighting shift, Dorn would stop and that flagpole arm of hers would lower. She would step out of her well-worn path and walk smartly away. Then, just as suddenly, the lighting and music would re-assert itself, the arm would go up again and she would resume her dance. There was a wonderful cheekiness to it. A sense of ‘and you thought we were finished with you’, and every time I laughed aloud. It felt a little like the Hofesh Schecter company’s Uprising, which begins with its seven male dancers marching to the front of the stage and solemnly striking a pose – arms in first, feet in passé – which they hold for a good minute as if to say ‘this what you want? Some mother-fucking ballet? There. Done.’ From that point on there is nothing remotely traditional about their movements. Similarly, there was a moment during the stunning technical duet of Night Train in Einstein On The Beachwhen Gregory R. Puruhagen and Helga Davis entered what I refer to as ‘the Showboatembrace’, a go-to pose older than musical theatre, the man behind, arms around the woman’s waist as they joyfully sing out to the world how they are ‘so in love’. Stripped of all empathy, as the pair intone nothing more passionate than ‘fa si la si’, the pose seemed like a jab at our expectations of what a man and woman, alone on a moonlit stage are ‘meant to’ do, rather than any sincere or emotive gesture.
Perhaps this projected cheekiness (for all interpretations of Wilson’s intentions must surely be in part the individual audience member’s projections) is also why I loved the ending. It was completely at odds with the rest of the event and I understand the frustration of some observers: after four hours of defying all dramatic expectations it gave us a ludicrously simple story of love but this ridiculousness was what I loved. It was as if the creators were reaching out of the stage and waggling a finger: ‘Narrative? Is that what you’ve been missing? Well, we’ll give you narrative.’ But what they gave us was so impotent and diminishing that it only emphasised how delicious its absence had been and how incredibly generous the creators were: they had given us hours of mystifying beauty over which we had complete control to take, to leave, to interpret or accept as we saw fit. Having an (almost) cohesive narrative at the end reminded me of putting a full stop after the final word of a beautiful stream of consciousness poem. It did not make for a neat conclusion: rather, it made us revel in its complete irreverence for such conventional punctuation and revealed the full stop to be nothing more than a meaningless spot of ink.
In a strange way, by de-humanising the ‘elements’ (ie, the ensemble of Einstein on the Beach), its creators actually humanise them – but as ‘performers’ rather than ‘characters’. They dare us to view their creation in a state devoid of empathy, but their audience is only mortal, and we seek out humanity wherever it lies. I dare anyone to watch Train without thinking at least fleetingly of Katie Dorn’s arm muscles and her control as she determinedly performs minute after minute of her perpendicular dance. But the piece lasts too long for this to be our sole take-away. I quickly found myself moving past this and settling instead into a state of breathless experiencing in which I did not fight for meaning but simply allowed the images to be layered one on top of the other. There is a tremendous sense that you are not experiencing it alone. Katie Dorn is with you. The entire ensemble is with you. The entire packed-out auditorium is with you. The original creators, Wilson, Glass and Childs, are certainly with you. It is as if we had all travelled together in an Einstein-worthy hypothetical spaceship far above the Earth. We had taken a knife and severed ourselves from the world and its usual patterns and laws and, when we were set down five hours later at the doors of The Arts Centre, we could only stare in wonder at the streets around us, as if startled by its normality. Oh, and we could talk. We could talk about it and we will talk about it for years to come.