A leading light in experimental theatre, Robert Wilson has broken the mould yet again with his latest venture, The Temptation of St Anthony. Drawing in part on Buñuel's 1965 Simon of the Desert, which takes a different saint on a similarly surreal trip, Wilson's moralist fable-come-musical sees a hapless St Anthony enduring a series of temptations laid before him by a comely seducer, before the action abruptly shifts to outer space, where he is taken on a whirlwind tour of competing religious and philosophical beliefs.
Wilson's main inspiration was Gustave Flaubert's 1874 novel, The Temptation of St Anthony; he has been wondering how to translate it visually for almost 30 years: "I have tried to relate the text to today, without disrespecting Flaubert's [original text]. It's a case of always trying to respect a master, but not wanting to become a slave," he says. This modernisation entails some leavening of the plot's weighty themes by moments of humour, and a populist score. Another contemporary touch sees the hermit, traditionally tested by lust in female form (the Queen of Sheba) resisting a tempting Adonis figure.
Wilson, who is reshaping the production for Sadler's Wells (with Carl Hancock Rux as Anthony), is best known for Einstein On The Beach and Hamletmachine. However, he has also brought his strong visual sense to many traditional operas, including The Magic Flute and Madame Butterfly (Wilson is also a visual artist). Temptation has the same dramatic look and colourful costumes - "like Matisse," Wilson says.
What is different about Temptation, however, is the music, and Wilson's composer: the political activist Bernice Johnson Reagon. "I thought about many people scoring it, including Philip Glass," says Wilson. "But I thought Bernice would be the right voice. She's a freedom singer from the Sixties, her father was a preacher and she is a leading historian of African-American culture. This spiritual music has its roots in slavery, and the slaves lived through a nightmare, just like St Anthony. I thought it was a good angle, and now it's become more pertinent than ever, with the religious turmoil we are in."
They have chosen a cast with strong Western classical training, as well as a background in church and folk singing. Reagon's repertoire ranges from spirituals, blues, hymns and early gospels, to jazz and hip hop. In addition to the music, she has brought something else to the production - stage movements from the 18th- to 20th-century black tradition. "I learnt from Reagon some of the theatrical language that has been passed down. Rocking, moving, sitting - all of it is choreographed."
But as with all of Wilson's work, Temptation is more a meditation on the idea of St Anthony - "not always outwardly experienced, but inwardly felt".
'The Temptation of St Anthony', Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1 (020-7863 8000; www.sadlerswells.com) 11-15 SeptemberReuse content