Robert, Rufus, Shakespeare: together at last
What has Robert Wilson been up to? Well, he's clearly been busy busy busy in recent years, according to his website, but we wouldn't know that here in London. For a while, his work frequently visited the city: it opened the first BITE season at the Barbican in 1997 (with the splashy but dodgy Monsters of Grace, complete with a score by Philip Glass and whizzy 3D glasses. All I really remember is a polar bear looming into the holographic space in front of the stage).
The Royal Opera staged the odd production (and, for his Aida, odd is the word). And BITE subsequently hosted the superbly achieved Woyzeck (music by Tom Waits) and A Dream Play. The last visit was a revival of The Black Rider, again with music by Waits and one of his iconic shows - but the revival cast was weak, led by an unhappy-looking Marianne Faithfull, who seemed to have been less directed than embalmed, and since then Wilson hasn't been around. I'm told he hates London, so I guess he isn't missing us.
I'm missing him, though, which is why I was excited to be seeing his latest show at the Berliner Ensemble. His work for the company has gathered international attention - the company recently toured his Threepenny Opera to Israel - and Berlin friends told me the advance buzz for Shakespeares Sonnete was immense.
Some of the excitement was in his collaboration with singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who swims in witty self-torment like a native element. The result of their work is a beguiling, occasionally baffling, but always remarkably beautiful masque. The mood shifts between lyrical, daft, or a baleful cabaret, old chum.
Wilson has made intermittent connections with Shakespeare during his career. His Hamlet monologue (1995) was his last project as a performer, while he staged The Winter's Tale with the Berliner Ensemble in 2005. Sonnete feels like a great summation of Shakespeare's comedies about capricious romance and its associated pains. You'll spot refractions of characters (lanky dolt Aguecheek from Twelfth Night; meddling Puck; even Lear's tragi-comic Fool). There are cross-dressers, twinnings and doubles here (notably, a trio of hawk-faced women in red wigs, in descending height - in one scene, they even brandish a doll-sized replica).
Want to meet a grumpy Elizabeth I, a flying Cupid and the spirit of Shakespeare? Wondering if Rufus' settings sound Rufus-ish? You'll need to click:
More pertinently, the show identifies the ideas that make Shakespeare's comedies of love - and , of course, the sonnets themselves - so intoxicating. The lover is ridiculous, poignant, egotistical and abject. The lover burns and freezes and ricochets between ecstasy and pain. Love tears their world apart, and reassembles it in ways that are no longer recognisable. Without narrative, though with a corps of fabular characters, Wilson pursues these ideas, using 25 of the sonnets (most, though not all, are in German translations which follow the original's pointed, lulling rhythms and rhyme scheme).
A YouTube clip has Wilson reassure the audience that it's ok to laugh. You can understand their reserve. In Wilson's style, a cartoonish - almost childish - sense of humour is pursued with the utmost aesthetic refinement. It's a disconcerting mix. His collage of themes from the sonnets opens in a cartoon version of the Elizabethan court, performing heightened skippity rituals of simper and courtesy. Everyone wears in costumes with exaggerated hips and waists, extreme wig and ruff. Noses are sharpened, cheeks heavily blanched.
Elizabeth herself is the ageing Gloriana, face thickly plastered: a hobbling, grimacing crone, played by Jürgen Holtz. She's more Geoffrey Rush than Cate Blanchett, but even she isn't immune from love's turbulent whirligig. Holtz, who has earlier recited sonnet 18, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?', is at the business end of one of Cupid's white arrows. The chubby cherub and his arrow both lurch unsteadily through the air and strike the beatific monarch, who welcomes it's piercing, thrown into the romantic arena. She closes the first act dressed like our own dear Queen Elizabeth II - sensible coat, handbag looped securely over her arm as if she fears a grab on her bus pass, neat hat crowned on her head.
Cupid is, as A Midsummer Night's Dream has it, a knavish lad. Or, as here, a knavish but squat and sniggering middle-aged man, with pot belly, wings and ears modelled on Mr Spock. If Cupid commits random acts of matchmaking, he is balanced by a wry, wistful jester (another veteran actress, tiny Ruth Glöss, full of tired smiles, little shrugs). Cupid creates chaos, wise laughter cleans up after them: towards the end of the evening, Glöss regretfully picks up discarded pieces of costume, as if tidying away child's toys, or mourning dead children.
Shakespeare inscribes ambiguity deep in every line, and Wilson identifies this oxymoronic, ambisextrous vision at the heart of the sonnets. The cast is a crossed-dressed riot - you end up peering for bulges to work out what gender might lie beneath the facial hair and padding. The playwright himself is played by veteran actress Inge Keller, a platinum-haired version of the familiar portrait. Don't expect a smile from this scribe, thoroughly disillusioned and bitter to the bone. He seems shattered, trapped in his chair, exhaustedly writing out his passions.
When a curtain falls between scenes, the drag cabaret diva Georgette Dee appears to chat, croon and bait her youthful cupid-winged functionary (he serves her strawberries and calls her to the phone). They fight a little duel with blanched stalks of the new season's asparagus, and later she suckles her boy in a tenderly perverse pieta. In Georgette's bilingual banter, she declares, 'Pictures - this is what we want.' And pictures are what Wilson mines from the sonnets.
Wilson's mastery of light and silhouette is heartbreakingly acute. He isn't a storyteller but creates a lustrous theatre of images. Early in the evening, we see a set of nocturnal circlings, like the enchanted confusions of A Midsummer Night's Dream; but if this is an arcadia, it's a complicated one. A later scene shows a couple pace together in front of a shattered car wrapped round a tree. Does this paint love as an emotional car-crash? Or point to the sonnets' harsh realisation that love feeds of our irresistible urge to self-harm? Later, a black bowler hat rises from the floor, in Magritte style.
The production also throws a Monteverdi fanfare and some Dowland into the mix, but most of the settings are by Rufus Wainwright. It must be the Berliner influence, but several of his songs have an world-weary tinge of Eisler. The spiky strings (even on the virginals) give them a certain kabaret sass. Other numbers, like number 20, about 'the master-mistress of my passion' convey Wainwright's slow, plangent croon, even if the reflective singer is sardonically echoed by a dwarf on a chaise longue. The sonnet is helpless with self-disgust - the dwarf shoots up on narcotic lust, the singer concludes by strangling herself.
'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes' - sonnet 29 - is echt-Rufus (in 2002 he performed a version of this setting at a fundraising event for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London). Like so many of the sonnets, it's a lyric about being scourged by love, and Wilson's masterly new piece feels the scourge's fall, heartfelt for all the detachment. It's a wonderful piece of work, wonderfully performed, and I hope we can all get to see it.
Update: you can see some beautiful production photos here
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