Batting between agony and ecstasy, pearly heaven and bloodstained hell, Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony was the dernier cri of French literary symbolism, and it called forth appropriate responses from the painters of the time. Its protagonist's promiscuous sampling of all the world's religions had a rationale of sorts, as Flaubert made clear: "I am the brother in God of all that lives, of the giraffe and the crocodile as of man, and the fellow-citizen of all that inhabits the great furnished hotel of the universe." Perfect material for a visual fantasy by the French symbolist painter Odilon Redon; the ideal trigger for a perfumed, freaky piece by a composer like Alexander Scriabin.
It's chock-full of philosophical utterances, but it's powered by an unbridled sensual indulgence (and I'm opening my copy at random): "They tell each other their own stories of martyrdom; grief becomes exalted, the libations redouble. Their swimming eyes fasten on each other. They stutter with drunkenness and desolation; little by little, their hands touch, their lips join, the veils fall open, and they come together on the tombs between the cups and the torches." Mmmm.
It's no surprise that a left-field director like Robert Wilson should be fascinated by this story, but it's a big surprise to find him teaming up with Bernice Johnson Reagon and an all-black cast to stage it. For while he inhabits the rarefied world of avant-garde event-art, she came of age singing with America's original civil rights movement, and got arrested in protests against segregation in Alabama. But she was also the founder of the a capella gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose mellow harmonies she has now imported wholesale into this show.
It opens with softly humming figures processing through the aisles bearing symbolic birds and trees. Subtly altering shades of green and grey are projected onto the cathedral-like set; our expectation that this will be a ritual is confirmed as the figures separate to allow St Anthony - in simple white shirt and braces - to enact a circular dance. His steps are basic, as are his semaphore-like gestures, and the words he sings have the heartfelt simplicity of revivalist chant. Once the show is underway, the music never stops: supported by a small but eloquent band, the cast are in a constant state of song and dance. While the young performers are beautiful, their elders have gravity and grace.
It's all supposed to happen in the course of a single night: the saint is tempted by food, sex, and a variety of religions, but finally recognises that science is the best religion, and that matter and spirit are one. Eschewing symbolist vanity, Reagon presents it all like a morality tale, which brings me to its first major defect: thanks to bad diction - or bad amplification - plus the fact that every single gesture is presented as burningly meaningful, it is impossible to discern any story at all.
The staging offers just two moments of tricksy magic - one when a blue sack spills gold-dust to form a Masonic-looking cone, the other when a mountain is deftly assembled, allowing a doll-like figure to grow as it approaches - but otherwise the only notable effect is the gorgeous, ever-changing lighting. The choreography is engagingly simple, but endlessly repetitive. The show could have ended after 45 minutes, or it could have gone on all night - the effect would have been the same.
The central problem crystallised when - after a rousing number - a spontaneous round of applause broke out, to be immediately stifled in embarrassment. And it became more obvious when the cast delivered their encore, belting their hearts out as though in a rock-musical. This was what they had clearly wanted to do all along, and what the audience had clearly wanted. But Wilson purveys a tight-arsed, Tate Modern kind of art - and you can't clap along with that.
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