In 1992, I caught the overnight bus from Adelaide to see Einstein On The Beach at the Melbourne Festival. I knew nothing about it, apart from the music was by Philip Glass (that guy with the neat film soundtracks) and that it had an almost mythical status as a masterpiece. This was my first time in the State Theatre and I didn't move for four-and-a-half hours.
First performed in 1976 in Europe and New York, Einstein launched the careers of director Robert Wilson and composer Phillip Glass. Its only Australian production was in 1992 and over twenty years later, there are five more exclusive Australian shows from 31 July to 4 August 2013.
There are shows that change how you see theatre; Einstein was one of those for me. Hundreds of shows later, I still haven't seen anything that's come close to it, including Wilson's I La Galigo and The Temptation of Saint Antony.
With no narrative, its hypnotic meld of music, design and dance (Lucinda Childs) rejects any idea that communication is about text.
Overcoming a learning disability as a child, Wilson's earliest work was with disabled and brain injured children 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.
His stage language developed from this time and it's why it's so hard to describe the experience of his work, because it's work that doesn't care for words.
Even more exciting than seeing The Temptation of St Anthony in 2007 was spending a couple hours in the State Theatre watching Wilson direct and perfect the first minutes of the show during a tech run. He's a scary director who demands respect with a precision that doesn't allow for vagueness, interpretation or spontaneity. The first run of the show's opening was mesmerising. Then Wilson stopped the run and fixed it.
There was some spacing inconsistencies, he spent minutes directing someone how to sit on a chair, he told a hidden chorister at the back of the stage that he saw her move in her head before she moved on the stage, and he insisted on the exact speed of the removal of a piece of set (and that it was re-painted because there was some grey showing when it was lifted out). The next run of those minutes was already so different and by opening night it was perfect. These tiny details tend to go unnoticed, but that is what makes this director’s work so addictive. He takes a beautiful moment and makes it exquisite.
Tickets for Einstein in the Beach are available from 20 December at artscentremelbourne.com.au.
Here's Bob and Phillip (and Susan Sontag and David Byrne) talking about the reaction to Einstein in 1976 in the film Absolute Wilson (seen at MIFF in 2006). Wilson produced it and sold tickets from $2 to $2000 and sat the $2 tickets next to the the $2000.