Monsters of Grace

Barbican Theatre, London

The "stereoscopic animation" for , "a digital opera in three dimensions" by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass - given its British premiere on Tuesday, and running until Saturday as the opening event of BITE:98, the Barbican's first international theatre season - uses technology developed by Silicon Graphics (of Jurassic Park fame) and computer-generated images, dubbed "synthespians", by the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company. But if this "multi-platform conceptual and aesthetic benchmark" was facilitated by all manner of techno whizzkids, its conception and images had Wilson written all over them.

Stereoscopic scenes, viewed through special polarised lenses, are intercut with others enacted by a real cast of five. We are parachuted, in glacially slow motion, into a landscape of houses set amid trees; later a boy rides a unicycle, apparently almost into our faces, before dropping off an unseen edge. In the live scenes, slow, rigorously choreographed movement predominates: a woman splashes water in a fish tank, a man walks on stilts. The close- up scenes - a graphically-etched hand cut with a knife, a table and glasses vaporised before our eyes in a cloud of magic dust - are especially effective, since they give the marvellous illusion that you could reach out and touch them; they also take a while to reveal themselves. Little things - a bird suddenly crossing the screen - are the most telling of all.

Preceded by a rather protracted overture, these scenes are framed by the live action of a small boy entering and leaving what seems to be a spaceship. So the whole thing could be a magical journey into space, or his dream. But with Wilson it's perhaps wrong to look even for meanings as open-ended as these, just as notions of narrative are expunged and spoken text forsaken. Explanations of the work's title don't help much, either.

Glass's music is the perfect complement to all this. In setting love poems by the 13th-century Anatolian mystic Jalaludin Rumi, for four singers and small ensemble, he counterpoints the action in a variety of ways. Sung in English, these settings take the arpeggiated repetitions and chromatic side-steps that have long been the composer's trademarks and add some Persian and other middle-Eastern string and percussion samples. Apparently simple in its direct portrayal of emotions, this music has its darker colours, which provide a more ambiguous level; even the familiar Glassy breeziness, which some mistake for vacuousness, can be telling in its very refusal to respond in an obvious manner to what's happening on screen or stage. This synthesiser-influenced soundscape - occasionally too bass- heavy for balance or comfort - itself seemed a comment on the electronic (un)reality of the theatre it supposedly accompanied.

Wilson and Glass - whose twenty-two year old Einstein on the Beach (an aesthetic benchmark if ever there was one) remains unseen in Britain - are the perfect pair for such music-theatre endeavours, and it's good to see them working together again. Their evocations of time and space are spellbinding and powerful in the way they imbue utter simplicity with powerful undercurrents of mysterious meaning. Much more than merely a technological breakthrough, is a powerful - and uninterrupted - 75 minutes of brilliant and evocative fantasy.

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