A NIGHT at what was billed as the world's first digital opera - the British premiere of Monsters of Grace, from the Einstein on the Beach team of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass - began when we were presented with a pair of 3-D glasses along with our tickets on arrival at the Barbican theatre. Nifty things, specially designed by l-a-Eyeworks (and note that classy lower case prefix), the specs presented a problem straight away. Did you wear them with the white or the blue side facing outwards, and did it matter? Once in our seats, the Barbican's Arts Director Graham Sheffield came on stage to put us right (it was white side out), and ran through the technical specifications rather like Q in a Bond film. Then he got us all to pretend we were already watching the screen so that the too- good-to-miss photo opportunity - an update of Weegee's famous pic of a 3-D movie audience from the 1950s - could be recorded for posterity and maybe the weekend arts pages.
As the lights dimmed, the music began, and although the musicians were buried deep in the orchestra pit you could glimpse for a second the hawkish profile of composer Philip Glass looking questioningly out at the audience. In what was basically an overture the disconcertingly banjo-like twang of ancient Persian string-driven things (the libretto was a translation of verses by the 13th- century Dervish poet Rumi), thumped out over the heavy-duty sound-system, while pretty pastel colours lit up the otherwise vacant screen dominating the stage. The music was lovely and unusually loose for Glass, conjuring up a suitably exotic atmosphere.
Then the first live action occurred, with the entrance of a small boy from stage right who walked slowly over to a kind of Habitat Bedouin cupboard hanging by a wire on the stage and got inside it. The cupboard started to lift up, the lights dimmed for the first of the evening's 3- D animations, and we all excitedly put our glasses on.
On screen there appeared a graphic rendering of a suburban landscape at twilight, the illusion of depth accentuated by the contrast of trees in the foreground with timber-frame houses at the back. The scene was beautiful and very, very still, but it also stayed on screen for what seemed like an age. Eventually you noticed that the leaves of the trees swayed a little and that the point of view was moving gradually downwards, but this was one of the slowest tilt-and- pans in the history of film. Then a boy on a unicyle pedalled towards us in slower than slow motion, and the image of a bird flew across the screen.
And so it went on, with the seven 3-D animated sequences interspersed with live tableaux in which actors did mystifying things (a woman put her hand in a fish tank, while two men walked back and forth and another woman manically mimed speech). Some of the 3-D images were startlingly beautiful, but they didn't always live up to the hard sell of the programme- notes, where the hype for the "full-spectrum", "high end", "multi-step" processes of computer animators Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co seemed to promise, at the very least, virtual reality. As it was, some of the sequences were less VR than ZX Spectrum, and while Monsters of Grace might be high art it certainly isn't Toy Story.
Despite the producer's spin about theatre for the 21st century, much of the technique seemed closer to a Victorian lantern-slide show, the film sequences clunking into action as if someone back-stage was turning a brass handle. As to what Monsters of Grace was about - given that non-narrative theatre does not have to be "about" anything - the subject seemed to be a full Douglas Adams job: life, the universe and everything. Some of the most memorable moments came when the animated scenes seemed to dissolve into molecules, with a table or a landscape turning into pixels of pure energy and light. These transcendental visions were very beautifully expressed, and at times Monsters of Grace was a delight to watch, even through the fog of those 3-D specs. Whether Wilson and Glass are really as ahead of the game as some people think, however, remains a moot point. The show's reliance on mechanics, its cute little boy and all-encompassing air of soppy spirituality suggested a strong coating of Victorian sugar on the high-tech pill.
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