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The Old Woman: MIF 2013 Reviews

Joan Davies has a remarkable night out with Willem Defoe and friends

Published on July 5th 2013.

The Old Woman: MIF 2013 Reviews

A HIGHLIGHT of Manchester Festival, The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson is premiered at The Palace Theatre for a four night run. With a cast of two, former ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and actor Willem Dafoe, it’s based on a novella from Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

Over the years MIF has expanded Manchester’s audience for performance art as distinct from performance and art. This production, with its pace and repetition strays strongly into that territory.

Neither the story nor its writer are well-known here, yet the theatre is packed. Wilson, described by The New York Times as ‘a towering figure in the world of experimental theatre and an explorer in the uses of time and space on stage’ will have drawn in aficionados from far and wide. Still, the bulk of the audience are Mancunians.

With Dafoe brave enough to dance alongside Baryshnikov and Baryshnikov brave enough to act alongside Dafoe, the cast of two has a gentle confidence, producing performances of precision, commitment and charm.

It’s visually stunning. Wilson works strongly with light from the start, props are sparse yet highly designed, costumes and make-up accentuate movement and expression. A varied soundtrack creates and varies mood. An international creative and technical team take a justified bow at the end. A track listing would be really welcome.

As for the story?

Two men, sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, sometimes new acquaintances, occasionally potential lovers, or enemies, observe and react to the passage of time and events. Reactions vary; both consistency and conflict emerge.

Darryl Pnchney’s adaptation of the story includes excerpts from other pieces by Kharms, including the powerful repeated verse opening:

'This is how hunger begins:
  The morning you wake, feeling lively,
  Then begins the weakness,
  Then begins the boredom;
  Then comes the loss
  Of the power of quick reason,
  Then comes the calmness
  And then begins the horror.'

The hunger poem is followed by colourful entertaining segment where costume, set and colours forced Kellogg’s Cornflakes into mind.

Reason, whether quick or slow, doesn’t feature strongly in the story. Cause and effect are dissonant. It’s rarely clear what is changing, the individual or society, nor whether the cause is internal or external. The menace of oppression speaks strongly in parts, through the music, lighting and physicality rather than the words. Kharms’ experience as an artist during the might of Stalinist doctrine is not in doubt.  

But why are Mancunians turning out in droves for this?  

Some will be there to see their heroes, ballet fans for Baryshnikov and film fans for Dafoe.

But mainly it’s because in a short period of time MIF has developed a Manchester audience keen to try something new and eager to support brave new works. Over the years MIF has expanded Manchester’s audience for performance art as distinct from performance and art. This production, with its pace and repetition strays strongly into that territory.

Though MIF produces original work many artists re-appear. Wilson and Dafoe were in Manchester two years ago with the stunning The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, and the audience has returned.

If you’re part of that group you’ll know what to expect: captivating performances, exceptionally creative and technically superb staging, and the freedom to interpret for yourself. A few will be disappointed. With a cast of only two men it can appear narrower and less exciting, but its use of unnamed characters unequivocally extends the focus to everyman and avoids the potential accusation of narcissism.

If you’re planning on going and aren’t familiar with the work you’ve two options: read-up before you go, both the internet and the programme are useful and you’ll find a full copy of the story on-line; or turn up, as I did, without any prior knowledge and see where it takes you.

The two characters represent the writer. Kharms was born in St Petersburg in 1905. His writing was seen to challenge the accepted wisdom of Stalinist rule. Arrested in 1931, though later released, he eventually died in captivity in 1941 either murdered or neglected by the authorities during the German occupation.

In his short life he had known poverty and hunger and much of his writing produced children’s stories, ignoring his expressed distaste for children in order to write with a reduced risk of investigation and arrest.

This is intriguing and imaginative theatre that won’t appeal to all. If this team returns in 2015 I’m certainly planning to be in the audience.

‘The Old Woman’, commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival, Spoleto Festival dei 2Mondi, Théâtre de la Ville-Paris/Festival d’Automne à Paris and deSingel, Antwerp, is at The Palace Theare for four performances, concluding with a matinee on Sunday 7 July. More details at www.mif.co.uk

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJuly 5th 2013.

Great review. We were both baffled, bewitched and sometimes bewildered. But we were definitely bothered by a stupid young woman wearing glasses seated in an aisle seat in the second from front row of the stalls who spent the entire evening texting and filming the production on her mobile phone. Robert Wilson's lighting is amazing, but even his onstage magic could not compete with the light beaming from her phone screen.

GJuly 5th 2013.

what an utter load of pretentious twaddle and a waste of £80 for two tickets..had it been a meal in a restaurant if have left without paying and vomited profusely afterwards..it would seem the young woman busily texting had found a much better way to pass the time..almost two hours of my life I'll never get back..

Judith WatsonJuly 5th 2013.

Joan, great review. We LOVED it. Personally, my enjoyment was enhanced from having read the novella beforehand. People using phones during performances should be ashamed of themselves.

GordoJuly 5th 2013.

Great lighting, fab staging, good actors, but if content is King, this play was a pauper. Left one hour in.

DrakeJuly 5th 2013.

The photo makes me think of David Walliams' greatest moment, in Spaced. 'it is not finished...it is finished'

LesleyJuly 6th 2013.

Bonkers was a word used to describe this MIF event by my friend. However we were glad we went. There were moments of real pathos and humour. The movement and mime were stunning. I'm still not sure what it was all about but it was a challenging experience.

DrakesterJuly 6th 2013.

Loved the performance. A play compared to Beckett on the theatre's own posters was never going to be like Les Mis. Content isn't king in the world of absurdist surrealism. There were a few walkouts last night but still a storming ovation at the end.

1 Response: Reply To This...
DrakeJuly 6th 2013.

Oi, get your own name...

Manc GuyJuly 15th 2013.

Those two on my doorstep was good enough. Brilliant lighting and sound. Not sure why the bloke sat next to me was laughing during the play. Not because he was taking the piss, but he seemed to see the humour in the surreal perhaps. Oh those luvvie types!

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