Theatre review: The Old Woman, Manchester International Festival


It would help if you read Daniil Kharms’ short story before you go to see The Old Woman which opened this year’s biennial Manchester International Festival. It would help. But not a lot.

For those who with no inkling of what to expect from the combination of one of the 20th century’s greatest ballet dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the maverick Hollywood actor William Dafoe and the experimental theatre director Robert Wilson there was a clue in the foredrop curtain. It was a bucolic 18th century scene adulterated with schoolboy graffiti. Suspended before it was the cut-out of a top-hatted man in Victorian garb looking like a drawing from Edward Lear. Nonsense was the order of the day.

Except nonsense is a British word. Continentals preferred Absurdist. We were in the world of Jarry, Artaud, Ionesco, Genet, Dürrenmatt and Beckett. This was nonsense with an existential dimension. You could create your own significance: the clock at quarter to three was a straight line, just as a line with a break was an angle but a line broken at every point was a curve. You could be, in Kierkegaard’s words, brought to a standstill by your own powers of reflection. Kharms was a Russian, but in the same Absurdist/Dadaist/Surrealist mode. He must have seemed very wild in his day but now he looks a bit après-garde.

It was all done brilliantly. Robert Wilson conjured a sequence, or rather series, of vignettes which were by turns moving, cruel, witty and occasionally laugh-out loud funny. Wilson is not a director so much as a sculptor in light, shape and movement. To an effective score by Hall Wilner he coached evocative performances of primary colours style, pathos and humour from Baryshnikov and Dafoe who moved seamlessly through vaudeville, silent movie, commedia del arte, music hall to the Mr Whippy-haired Joker of Batman fame.

It was a five star production. But it gets only four because there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about Absurdism. It takes the grammar of reality and fills it with emptiness. In the end it was like listening to someone bore on with an detailed account of a dream they have just had. A vivid and Technicolor dream. But, unlike sculpture, theatre needs a story. Here was no narrative, just a series of strange beautiful breathtaking memorable haunting and mesmeric events which added up to less than the sum of their parts.