Now at a prison near you

INSTALLATION; Robert Wilson, the darling of the international culture circuit, is bringing his strange art to SE1. Kevin Jackson reports
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The Independent Culture
LONDON, in the Year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Five: the month is September, the hour as measured by Greenwich is precisely 8.14 pm, and a small party of Her Majesty's loyal subjects have gathered in a dark, handsomely appointed dining room. The owner of this room, a gentleman whose initials appear to be HG, has the acquisitive habits typical of his class in this grand age of travellers and virtuosi. He has crammed it full of the nick-nacks of Empire: exotic fruits, miniature sphinxes, classical columns. It is a comforting, candle-lit tableau of well-upholstered order. But something is wrong.

As on the mess-deck of the Marie Celeste, the room has been mysteriously abandoned. It was a sudden evacuation - the candles are still burning, the discarded napkins are still immaculate. What has happened? When you venture downstairs to investigate, you find yourself in far less cosy surroundings: a ragged Piranesian warren of tunnels, high vaults and cramped chambers, each one housing some uncanny sight: rank upon rank of vacant hospital beds, lit harshly from above in a cellar whose walls trickle with water; an Egyptian mummy, lying in eerie isolation in the middle of a floor; the distant prospect, glimpsed through iron bars, of a subterranean forest.

Such is the beginning of a walk through "HG", a rambling installation recently set up inside Clink Street Vaults, Southwark - the remains of that notorious medieval gaol which gave the English language one of its most enduring slang terms for "prison". Commissioned by Artangel (the group best known for contriving Rachel Whiteread's House) and sponsored by Beck's beer, "HG" is an invention of the theatre director, performer, painter, designer and architect Robert Wilson.

Asked to explain his intentions in "HG", Wilson is wary: "If you try to make too much sense of it, you'll miss the experience of it." The most he is willing to comment is that "It's a kind of journey in different times and periods. The first room is set very specifically in 1895, there's a medieval room, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt ... There is a kind of narrative, but it's more something you freely associate with. There are clues in that first room which introduce things that come later on - the initials HG, a glass of water, Grecian columns..." So the sphinxes anticipate the mummy? "Right."

Were this a page in some continental publication, Wilson's name would require little glossing. Over the last two decades, he has become such a staple of mainland Europe's subsidised culture that outsiders might assume his presence has been made compulsory by some artistic mandate of the EU. For the converted, Wilson's productions are little short of epiphanies. The elderly poet Louis Aragon, writing of a French staging of Wilson's Deafman Glance in an "open letter" to the master surrealist Andre Breton (who had, incidentally, been dead for several years at the time), declared that "I never saw anything more beautiful in the world since I was born". Le Monde described Wilson's work as "a revolution in the plastic arts that one sees only once or twice in a generation".

Wilson's career has been borne along on a wave of comparable superlatives. His mantelpiece at home in New York must be crumbling under the weight of his awards, and the list of his collaborators is studded with the names of the distinguished and the chic: David Byrne (who contributed music to Wilson's multi-national venture, the CIVIL warS - Wilson favours unconventional typography), William Burroughs, Tom Waits, Gavin Bryars, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Julia Kristeva.

Before arriving in London to set up "HG", he'd been in a stadium in Delphi, staging his new piece, Persephone, part of a larger work inspired by Eliot's The Waste Land, on which he is working with his old friend, the composer Philip Glass (the minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach is their most celebrated collaboration). Before that, he was at the Salzburg Festival, where he directed productions of Bluebeard's Castle and Ewartung with another old friend, the soprano Jessye Norman. And just a few weeks before Salzburg, he'd been back in his home state of Texas (Wilson is, with the comedian Steve Martin and the Branch Davidian sect, one of the three most famous products of Waco), performing his one-man Hamlet.

Britain, however, has rarely been a staging post on Wilson's dizzyingly prolific progress (27 major productions in the last five years alone) around Europe and North America. The marked infrequency of British productions on his crammed CV is, he says, partly a matter of chance, partly a matter of the limited funds our theatres have at their disposal - Wilson plays tend towards the epic, in dimensions if not in content, which is one reason why the adjective "Wagnerian" crops up so frequently in his reviews. In fact, Wilson can operate on a scale that makes Wagner look like a miniaturist: one of his early plays, KA MOUNTAIN and GUARDenia TERRACE, was staged across seven hills in Shiraz and ran non-stop for seven days.

Wilson, a tall, reserved and soberly dressed fellow in his early fifties who bears the abstracted air of the archetypal boffin, is probably too polite to add that another reason for bypassing the native land of Pseud's Corner is that the cultural climate here may not be too well suited to his idiosyncratic brand of theatre. When I saw his first British production, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, at the Royal Court in the late Seventies, the man in the seat next to mine spluttered noisily about fraud and charlatanism right the way through its two identical halves. Ten years later, when Wilson's production of Hamletmachine visited the Almeida, the Independent's critic roasted it as so much vacuous posturing.

These were not the only voices of dissent. Other non-believers have charged Wilson with a range of offences - being dull, being coldly intellectual, spreading himself too thin, simply being meaningless. You can certainly see the force of this last objection. The main obstacle Wilson sets before conventional theatre-goers is that his plays don't make an awful lot of paraphrasable sense.

True, in recent years he's taken to producing more or less faithful versions of classic texts, from Parsifal to King Lear, albeit in his own disorienting manner. But Wilson's most characteristic work is notable for its almost total renunciation of everything the Western tradition holds dear. There's not much in the way of plot; the dialogue, if any, tends to be fragmented and absurd; and he has little interest in notions of character and psychology.

What can possibly be left on stage after so many wilful abstentions? Oddly, quite a lot. Human bodies in motion, for one thing, which makes Wilson's work a kind of choreography. (One of his avowed masters is George Balanchine.) Arrangements of lighting, costume and stage furniture, for another, which makes it an exercise in the visual arts. (Another mentor was the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman: "This man would just paint a single stripe on the canvas, so why is it so powerful? I don't know, but there's a lot going on there.") Carefully structured, alternating patterns of words and sounds, for a third, which makes it closely analogous to music - so much so that sympathetic critics have tended to refer even to his non-musical works as "operas".

Wilson maintains, however, that the two most important figures behind his work were neither choreographers nor painters nor musicians, but a deaf boy and an autistic boy. In his student years, Wilson supported himself by working with hyperactive and brain-damaged children in New York. "I met a 13-year-old black child, Raymond, who had never been to school and had never learnt any words, yet it seemed to me that he was intelligent. It became apparent after a short period that Raymond thought in terms of visual signs and movements. My first major work in theatre [Deafman Glance] was written with that child."

The autistic child, Christopher Knowles, introduced Wilson to the possibility that words might be expressive even when fractured into their constituent phonemes. By transcribing Christopher's seemingly arbitrary babble, Wilson discovered that its sounds were disciplined in precise patterns. Wilson is at pains to avoid the suggestion that the works he did with Raymond and Christopher were in any way akin to conventional drama therapy; the boys, he suggests, were more like co-researchers in a semi-scientific inquiry into the way in which the body can send and accept meanings.

It seems likely that even those Brits who harrumphed their way through Wilson's stage shows might be more comfortable with the meanings (or lack of meanings) of "HG", since the process of wandering through it has so little in common with the old theatre-going habit of sitting down in the dark and waiting to be shown a story. "HG" is more like a visit to a contemporary art gallery, a National Trust property (even without Wilson's trappings, the Clink is certainly worth a detour), a fun house, a cabinet of curiosities. It comes as no surprise at all to learn that Wilson isn't saying what "HG" stands for. "It's better for you to tell me." Urr ... Holy Grail? Heilige Geist? Herbert George? Hamlet's Ghost? "Hamlet's Ghost isn't bad." It seemed a trifle philistine to mention that someone in the Artangel office had suggested Hugh Grant.

! Clink Street Vaults, SE1 (0171 336 6803), Tues to 15 Oct; 4-8pm Tues- Fri, 12noon-8pm Sat & Sun.