Academic journal article About Performance

Robert Wilson's Dantons Tod at the Berliner Ensemble

Academic journal article About Performance

Robert Wilson's Dantons Tod at the Berliner Ensemble

Article excerpt

"We want naked gods and priestesses and Olympian athletes and, oh, from melodious lips the sounds of wicked, limb-melting love!"

The audience enters the auditorium, and the performance has already begun. To the eerie sounds of a moaning wind a man dressed in a long black coat, hair drawn back into a severe ponytail, mouth bound by a black gag, stalks, in measured paces, the stage. Is this the Angel of Death, also evoked at the end in Duales last speechA black sculptural throne occupies the middle ground. To its left a torch on a long stand, flickering with a green flame. Behind them three cut out "doors" in the jet black backdrop reveal a space which is flooded with alternating coloured light-blue, apricot, red. Are these red tones and blue to recall to us the colours of the tncoleur? The three doors to recall Diberté Egalité, Dratemité? His movement is tied to the changing of light. Does he cue the lighting changes or do thy cue him ? Impossible to tell: as we will see, the technical precision of both animate (actors) and inanimate (light, sound) stage objects is such as to make up an indivisible whole, He continues to pace the floor for about a quarter of an hour. Slowly the audience settles and starts paying attention. Finally he approaches the flame. His straight arm scythes backwards and then over his head in a gesture that will be repeated by many performers. His gloved hand falls, smooth and fast like a guillotine and snuffs out the light. All sound, all light is instantly extinguished. The Enlightenment has ended, the Terror is about to begin?

Wilson's work is difficult to analyse. It is incredibly dense: each gesture, each sound, each light or set shift sets up a ripple effect within the discrete world created by the production. A single gesture like, for example, the scything arm of the black angel described above, works like a pebble dropped into water: it ripples outward, and as we skim along the surface of this production, we continue to bump into these ripples: the angel of death at the beginning of the play, Marion on her couch, Robespierre in his bath, Julie in her death scene, the executioner's arm in the execution scene-all reproduce this gesture. This gestural work is often highly stylised: in isolation one might ask why s/he flings his arm like that, at that particular moment, apparently randomly, but in connection with the other places where one sees this gesture repeated, a meaningful chain is suddenly uncovered which has been superimposed on the simultaneous realisation of the naturalistic narrative3.

This ripple effect is then also replicated on an interpretative level-description slips rapidly into interpretation: does this gesture/sound/effect "mean" this? or this? or this? all three? and (how) does it relate to this/that? Any analysis of a production of his work can only scratch a few surfaces, note a few instances, draw a few links. In the following paper I will look at a tew of the elements which make Wilson's work so compelling and stunning, and how this reflects and is received by its German audiences.

Like much of his work, this production redefines what we conceive of as "theatre", and this is significant here, because he directed this production in two cities which have weighty traditions in conventional drama4 and with a text which has a similar tradition.

Wilson reconfigures not only what is meant by the term "theatre", but what is included under the banner of "art", as we grapple with describing what it is that he does. In describing it, the text, the thing that he is staging, is displaced from the centre of the experience (as I will displace it to a later part of this discussion): in the beginning was not the word and here the performance begins long before a single word of text is spoken. Instead, we must look for a different point of reference. This point of reference comes, I think, from visual art.

Perhaps this is not altogether surprising: Wilson himself is a trained interior designer, and continues to work as a painter, sculptor and installation artist-he is at home in the world of visual art, and brings this sensibility to the stage. …

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