Willem Dafoe is shaking a tail feather with menace.
Hips twitching, he looks like Death indulging in a raddled shimmy. With his cadaverous face painted chalk-white, black lips, and a voice like gravelly, molten pitch, he's a fantastic Gothic horror. He is also our storyteller for the night, narrating The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic.
One of the Manchester International Festival's experimental commissions (which have started to make the Edinburgh Festival look outmoded), this dreamlike, multimedia biodrama proves nonetheless to be a curate's egg. Sometimes electrifying, sometimes wearisome, it's conceived and directed by America's veteran avant-gardist Robert Wilson. Songs are performed by Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). And Abramovic stalks the stage in a vampish sheath dress, her footsteps amplified. Think Morticia Addams meets Monsieur Hulot, albeit not that funny.
I should clarify, in case anyone is confused by the title. This is Marina Ambramovic herself on stage – the self-styled "grandmother of performance art"– alive and kicking at 64, merely rigged out like one of the walking dead. Multiplying around her are clones of her adult and infant selves, played by dancers and singers (some in drag, but all with similar make-up).
Dafoe, meanwhile, reels off lists of incidents from Abramovic's life, like diary entries translated into the third person, each catalogued by year yet jumping about in time. He loops back to certain events, the most obsessive memories, perhaps. Looming large in Ambramovic's Serbian childhood is her nightmarish mother. We glean she was a Partisan fighter who in the post-war, Communist era – after the end of a violent marriage – became a punitive domestic dictator. She made her daughter's life hell, a family trait from the previous generation.
In one Grand Guignol-influenced pantomime sequence, we see a mini Marina dancing in a red, sparkly frock then being whacked by her mother (played by Ambramovic). That's overlaid with a soundtrack of deafening slaps and electronic screeches.
There are clear intimations that, although she escaped from her homeland, the rising performance artist was subsequently prone to self-harming and sadomasochism. The snapshot memories can be shockingly vivid, though the style of delivery is cold.
Ultimately this production is heading towards a transcendent ascension scene, where three Abramovics (or lookalikes) hover above the stage in white robes and Noh-style, morbidly serene masks. The trouble is the storytelling has already started to feel shambolic – not to say trite. It's also hard to see what's so great about Abramovic. Those unfamiliar with her work won't come away any the wiser. We're told she won the Golden Lion Award – Venice Biennale, 1997. But for what?
I was also mildly disappointed by Antony's contribution. He looks nervously awkward, having to hold poses in a breastplate that make him look like an operatic Brunhilde. And yet his eerily androgynous voice, floating above soft piano chords, has a quivering tenderness that's angelically soothing. There is also a thrilling Serbian choir.
Wilson creates mystifying yet unforgettable visual images on a vast canvas: an entirely scarlet housewife parading with a roast chicken; three shadowy hounds snuffing around giant, glowing bones. Moreover, Dafoe is electrifying, winking at the audience with a bloodshot eye.
Regrettably not a highlight of London's Shubbak festival of Arab culture, The Penal Colony fails to grip in a poorly staged adaptation by Palestine's ShiberHur theatre company. Kafka's original short story grimly zooms in on a prison guard, from a nameless state, who proudly demonstrates the workings of an elaborate torture and execution machine.
Director Amir Nizar Zuabi's production boasts some fine acting. Makram Khoury (from The West Wing) has gravitas as Visitor – possibly representing a more liberal new regime – while Amer Hlehel becomes increasingly feverish as the Executioner, clinging to the old order. However, you never believe in the torture machine. It looks like an arty Wendy house. The prisoner sits inside, jiggling around with an unexplained bunch of sunflowers, when he's meant to be lying under a flesh-slicing harrow of blades. Bemusing.
In Mirror Teeth – an absurdist comedy by Nick Gill – Mr and Mrs Jones are a seemingly bland, white, middle-class couple. But they're paranoid racists, aghast when their daughter brings home a black boyfriend whom they ludicrously assume to be a knife-wielding mugger. It is, in fact, the Joneses who are scarily lethal.
For a new playwright, Gill has striking assurance. Kate Wasserberg's tightly paced, deadpan cast are impressive too. That said, Gill's household feels more like 1951 than 2011. Mirror Teeth – while inviting comparison – lacks the social precision and satirical bite of Clybourne Park.
'In the Penal Colony' (020-7922 2922) to 23 Jul; 'Mirror Teeth' (0844 847 1652) to 30 Jul
Kate Bassett sees A Woman Killed With Kindness at the NT
The outstanding experimental hit London Road is back at the National (to 27 Aug): a documentary/ musical about local reaction to the serial killing of prostitutes in Ipswich. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice, at Stratford's RST (to 26 Sep), is set in a fantasy-tinged Las Vegas where Portia and her suitors star in a TV game show.Reuse content