Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Old Woman @ Palace Theatre, 05.07.13

I don’t even pretend to know anything about absurdist theatre, least of all Russian absurdist theatre and to try to convince you that I do would be, well, absurd.

But I think I understand three things about absurdist theatre in general and Russian absurdist theatre in particular, and those three things are: one, I don’t understand it; two, I don’t think anybody else does and if they say they do, they’re probably lying; and three, neither of the first two things matter. Remember these three things and you may begin to make sense of The Old Woman. Or not. It doesn’t matter.

Daniil Kharms was born in St Petersburg in 1905 and came of age in the last days of revolutionary optimism before Bolshevik violence took a stranglehold on the arts. First arrested in 1931 when the avant garde was criminalised, he began to write children’s literature and buried himself in the absurd and the surreal. Arrested again for treason in 1941, he died a year later aged 36, probably of starvation in what was then Leningrad, with most of his work remaining unpublished until the Gorbachev era of Glasnost.

As part of Manchester International Festival, Darryl Pinckney’s adaptation of Kharms’ novella The Old Woman stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe as characters simply called A and B. It matters not which is which but it makes it much easier to understand once you realise they are one and the same person, or rather two aspects of the same imagination of the character, The Writer.

The old woman of the title exists only in the imagination of the writer, which is also important to remember.

She holds a clock that has no hands yet still she tells the writer the time. He goes home to work on a story and the old woman follows him, orders him around, sits in his chair and dies. The writer hates corpses; not as much as he hates children, but he hates them nonetheless. He goes to buy vodka and bread and all the time he is accompanied by himself, his friend and narrating to himself. The writer meets a young woman but he cannot take her home because of the dead old woman and when he finally returns he finds the old woman not dead but crawling around. He wants to kill her and has nightmares about her murder. He puts the old woman into a suitcase and gets on a train where the suitcase disappears. An old woman holds a clock that has no hands. The writer asks for the time. The old woman tells him the time.

Bringing this bizarre and captivating tale to life are Baryshnikov and Dafoe. To watch Baryshnikov move across any stage is worth the ticket price alone but to see him partnered, step for gentle step, in this surrealist danse macabre by Willem Dafoe is dual performance just too good to be missed. Complementing each other perfectly as essentially one and the same character, yet maintaining individuality, each exquisitely choreographed movement is executed with a precision that matches the snappy, camera shutter, blink-of-an-eye scene changes.

Vigorously directed by renowned avant garde director Robert Wilson, this extraordinary fable is played out in what appeared to me to be something reminiscent of German Expressionism by way of jazz age, vaudeville, pierrot slapstick and Waltzing Matilda.

To me, The Old Woman is about a writer struggling for an idea. Locked out of reality and into his stark and terrifying imagination where random thoughts wander off and take on a life of their own, repeating themselves over and over and over again. Nothing makes sense and the unconsciousness and schizophrenic mind, portrayed by Baryshnikov and Dafoe, is at once alarming, bleak, humorous and paranoid. To anyone else, it would probably be something entirely different and if absurdism has any kind of point at all then the point is that it can mean as much or as little as you want it to.

The Old Woman is the work of a darkly mad soul full of imagination, inventiveness, surreal energy, comedy and fantastic invention. None of it makes sense because nothing in it is real but once you accept that nothing is real, that life is meaningless and nothing matters, then you begin to get it and once you begin to get it and allow yourself to be drawn into the fragmented helplessness of the beautiful and tortured mind of Daniil Kharms, then prepare to be astonished.

Words: Robert Pegg
Images: Lucie Jansch, courtesy of MIF

The Old Woman is being performed as part of Manchester International Festival and continues at the Palace Theatre until 7 July.

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