Arts: Time. And Time again

Robert Wilson doesn't believe in doing things too quickly, as Paul Taylor witnesses first hand while waiting in a Berlin hotel lobby. But the director's new play, his third based on work by Gertrude Stein, is a visual and musical feast. So what if it's a little slow...
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The first words spoken by Robert Wilson in his 1995 show Hamlet a monologue were "Had I but time..." That's a deadpan joke, if ever there was one. The equivalent would be for John Paul Getty to have walked on to a stage and declaimed: "Had I but money..." Wilson - the Texas-born globally- revered pontiff of the pictorial slow-motion theatre work - has always had (and taken) all the time in the world, and then some. Duration in his pieces is an almost infinitely plastic experience. He is, after all, the man who first wowed Europe with the seven-hour, silent Deafman Glance (1970).

All of which came back to me as I sat waiting for the great man to descend from his suite in the Grand Hotel, Berlin. They were piping a tinny version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons into the moneyed torpor of the vast lobby and I began to think we'd be getting through that cycle of seasons in a more than merely musical sense as I gazed and gazed at the hotel clock. Clocks were a ubiquitous and highly charged feature of Einstein on the Beach, Wilson's landmark 1976 collaboration with the composer Philip Glass: one of its chronometers ran backwards; another featureless one, like some planetary sun dial, was gradually eclipsed by a dark object.

Did I entertain Revenge fantasies as the waiting progressed into its second hour? Am I a journalist? The trouble was that I'd absolutely adored the public dress rehearsal I had seen at the Hebbel Theater the night before of Wilson's latest work, Saints and Singing, an "Operetta" ingeniously concocted from a text by his heroine Gertrude Stein. The show is to feature, later this month, in the Belfast Festival, which looks, on the strength of it, like being a must.

Revenge reveries were brought to a halt, however, by the sudden materialisation of Wilson, all 6ft 4in of him, clad in great-director-black and remembering to call me "Paul" in those burly, faintly camp, caressing tones that could make him a parallel fortune as a voice-over merchant.

The Berlin newspapers are awash with Wilson and encourage him to pontificate about the meaning of Time and Space. But Saints and Singing is full of the most delightful visual and musical wit: I want to meet the man from whom this came, not the deliverer of arts-sage soundbites. So I ask him why interviewers feel the need to be po-faced about him, just because his humour is dead-pan.

Our talk even at times ascends into the uplands of gossip. I remark that I've always loved Stein's dry, wonderfully applicable comment on somebody else's writing that you couldn't call it literature, you could scarcely call it typing. Wilson whinnies with pleasure and counters: "Do you know Diana Vreeland [legendary editor of Vogue]? She said, `Of course I like lettuce. I'm not sure it's food.'"

Saints and Singing is Wilson's third theatrical encounter with Gertrude Stein. He's already directed Four Saints in Three Acts and Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. Wilson began his career working with brain damaged children and was particularly inspired by an autistic teenager, Christopher Knowles. "He was 13," Wilson recalls, "and he wrote a piece that went: `This is this and this is his and this is his and this is this and this is his and this is Chris and Chris is this is this is this is this is his is this is this is this is CHRIS.'" In this playing around with language as a kind of puzzle - rearranging its pieces into patterns of repetition and minute variation that inch the meaning forward and recreate the familiar from a slowed-down, alienated perspective - there are obvious affinities with what Stein achieved through art.

Turning the text of Saints and Singing into theatre poses special problems, however: "There's no situation to play and there are no characters." There's just the distinctive music of that strange hypnotic instrument, the Gertrude Steinway. It was this text's near-total abstract quality (the word "abstract" is a mantra in Wilson's conversation) that recommended it to the director as a piece to use as the basis for a workshop with students at Berlin's Ernst Busch school, where the teaching is heavily psychology based. They perform the finished product with a stunning, zestful professionalism.

As Londoners can now see in La Maladie de la Mort, (a 1995 Wilson production brought over as part of the French season and ending its brief run tonight), Marguerite Duras's work also lends itself beautifully to Wilson's abstract approach. The play is a static lyrical contention between a sick-of-soul elderly man (Michel Piccoli) and the woman whose paid-for body he can penetrate but who is, in every other sense, impenetrable to him. Set in a mental landscape, the duo often silhouettes against Wilson's characteristic, brilliantly illuminated horizontal screen, the piece unfolds as a series of taut tableaux. Like a piece of mobile statuary, the bonily elegant Lucinda Childs mesmerically drifts across the stage, twisting her body into various postures of reproving unattainability.

It's the droll bizarreries of Stein, though, that release the best in Wilson's imagination. With a parrot as its mascot, the piece plays hilarious games with the idea of repetition and disposal. The same sequence of dotty physical "Consequences" punctuates the proceedings, each time with some cheeky variation (we see it from the back view, say, or in the climactic number, the whole thing is redone with the cast blissfully transformed into hunkered-down, effortfully leaping frogs). Wilson will blackout a scene, clear the stage, then coolly resume it in mid-sentence. Now sounding as Poulenc might if rescored for a synthesised steel band, now pastiching American pop genres with much interplay of trombone and clarinet, Hans- Peter Kuhn's music performs the tricky feat of throwing Stein's rhythms into relief through its own syncopated counterpoint.

Wilson's works in progress include a movie called Monsters of Grace with Philip Glass where, in reaction to a medium that's in thrall to the close- up "things are very, very far away. In the first scene, the people are just microscopic" and the revival in New York of Time Rocker, a musical with Lou Reed about time travel.

In the course of our conversation, what illuminated his art most for me was not the diagram he (left-handedly) drew in my notepad which showed how the scenes in Saints and Singing are structured on a recurring plan of portrait, still life and landscape. No, Robert Wilson was revealed better in a long, slow, superbly timed and structured anecdote that is like inspired self-parody. It involves Wilson reporting how, all over the world, he has had to badger friends and collaborators into being honest with him about whether they think a particular piece works. Each time, he manages to extract the reluctantly honest answer, "You know, Bob, it's a little slow."

Then, in the punch line paragraph, he invites his sister, whom he hasn't seen for 25 years, over to New York to see a show. She doesn't share the inhibitions of the others. "So I said, `Oh, tell me, Suzanne. If you didn't know that your brother had written, directed and designed this play, would you know it was my work?' She said (cue broad Texan accent), `Sure'. I said, `How would you know?' She said, `Because it's so slow!!!'."