13 October 2007

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

MIAF 2007
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Melbourne International Arts Festival
13 October 2007
State Theatre, The Arts Centre


The problem of having high expectations is that they may not be met. The Temptation of St Anthony didn’t meet my expectations. It totally surpassed them. Musically, visually and emotionally it is exquisite. It gently grabs your soul and doesn’t let it go.

Robert Wilson (I La Galigo MIAF 2006, Einstein On The Beach MIAF 1992) is an undisputed master of western avant guard theatre. Last year we saw him his signature touch on traditional Indonesian dance. This year Melbourne sees his version of a musical. Wilson said he wanted a musical for this story because “it is universal and speaks an emotional universal truth”. The masters know the emotional power of musical theatre.

The Temptation of St Anthony ignores, subverts and breaks most conventions associated with musical theatre, but I can say that is simply the best and most powerful musical that I’ve ever seen.

Ironically Wilson doesn’t start with music when he directs. “I start with silence, then add the movement and at the end, the text or music”. He does, however, know how to find the most perfect musical collaborators. (Philip Glass composed Einstein On The Beach; Tom Waits composed The Black Rider.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote the music for Saint Anthony. Halleluiah! Reagon was the founder and artistic director of the divine a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. This score is based in the history of African-American music and culture and includes spirituals, blues, shouts, gospel, hymns, jazz, doo wop, hip hop and rock. The African-American cast of singers and dancers were selected for their mix of western training, church singing and folk orientation. She wanted a mix of old and young voices and they had to be able to move. Every member of this cast is sensational, even though Wilson takes away so many of their standard methods of communication.

Imagine the sound, the emotion and the movement of gospel singing. Now take away the individual personalities and take away any direct connection they have with each other and with the audience. The performers are performing for us, but never to us. They never look at the audience. It really is like they can’t see us. They also very rarely look at or touch each other, but are always working like an intricately connected machine.

Daniel Dodd Ellis plays St Anthony. He has a voice commands attention, whilst melting your heart. He is always on the stage, but he rarely sings. It’s not St Anthony’s story, but the story of his temptation and his journey. We don’t see character, but we do feel his emotion.

This may sound slightly disturbing. It is - and that is also why it’s so astonishingly effective. You don’t watch a Wilson show, you experience and feel it. It’s difficult to use words to describe the impact of a communicator who has so little use for words.

Wilson communicates with movement and colour. He developed this visual language by working with people who had severe difficulty communicating in our text based world. Wilson overcame a learning disability as a child and later worked extensively with disabled and brain injured children. Possibly his most important and powerful works have never been seen by the public. In the 60s he used theatre games in hospitals and schools to enable and encourage communication with patients and children deemed unable to communicate. In one hospital show his cast of patients were only able to make small movements with their hands or mouth. So he connected them all with photo sensitive string and showed how humans can visually communicate no matter how impossible it may seem. Wilson’s public frame and regard were established with his separate collaborations with the young artists Raymond Andrews (Deafman Glance) and Christopher Knowles (A Letter for Queen Victoria). Andrews is deaf and Knowles is autistic.

Some people don’t use words or eye contact or text to communicate. Wilson uses this style of language and that is why his theatre communicates so strongly with us, even if we don’t consciously understand how.

Everything on a Wilson stage is precise and controlled. There is no room for a spontaneous gesture, interpretation or even thought. This control becomes even more evident when the cast were released. During the curtain call, they bow and finally sing and dance as themselves. Suddenly the stage is filled with 16 unique personalities. The contrast is astounding and the emotional release of seeing them free is as powerful as seeing them contained.

Review of Absolute Wilson that originally appeared in The Pundit.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.


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