Is Robert Wilson a genius? The answer, I think, is yes. His latest directorial work, Peer Gynt, a coproduction of the National Theatre of Bergen and the Norwegian Theatre of Oslo at BAM, reveals once again how he can bring alive on stage a mesmerizing visual world, reinvent it, ensnare us in it, and take a long time to let it go. His method succeeds particularly well in this early Ibsen work, a strange folktale-like enactment of one manâ€™s life of fierce and often futile adventure.
Ibsen completed Peer Gynt in 1867, and was pleased with what he saw as a play in verse not meant for the stage; its fantastic elements (scenes with trolls and other mythical characters) and numerous scene changes lent themselves to a drawing room reading. But over the years it has in fact been infrequently staged, and Wilson has brought it to full brilliant life with that painterly eye that characterizes his work. This production opens on a wide, empty stage; we hear horns playing and see a pale blue rectangle of light. Two people run on, mere silhouettes at first; the lighting makes them clown-like. He is very tall and large; she is short, tiny; they appear as archetypal mother and son.
Like so many mothers, Ase loves her son and his wild tales at the same time that she chides him, doubts him, and worries that what he is telling her is sheer rubbish. He is a fatherless young man with no clear direction in life, prone to telling outrageous stories of his prowess and getting in trouble from fights and quasi-romantic female abductions. He is Jack-in-the-Beanstalk with his widowed mother, fated to go into the giantâ€™s lair, or in Peerâ€™s case, the underground kingdom of the trolls; fated to wander the world seeking self-knowledge, power, andâ€”at his most grandiose--empire. Watching such a classic enactment of the old story reminded me of Clifford Odetsâ€™s Awake and Sing (which I had just seen in the latest Lincoln Center production now on Broadway) and how much less compelling that version is: Odetsâ€™s young man, Ralph Berger, is an adolescent whiner, his mother a benighted, close-minded manipulator, and rather than rooting for his escape one longs to flee their presence on stage, to escape the stifling Bronx apartment for anywhere other than the home of the pathetic, complaining Berger family. Their cup runneth over with self pity.
What Wilson achieves is a very full theatre experience: lighting, music (in the form of an effective score by Michael Glasso), tableau, poetry, action, danceâ€”some sort of post-modern version of the Renaissance court masque blended with a Pina Bausch production. Heightening the experience by leaping far from the limitations of naturalism, Wilson provides an imagined world that is pure art. Peer Gyntâ€™s odyssey becomes the archetypal adventure of life, involving love and loss, betrayal and redemption, trial and self-discovery. Peerâ€™s belief that â€œthe devil is in every woman, except oneâ€ makes him a pretty representative male. That Peer is often cruel and irresponsible reveals Ibsenâ€™s own self-loathing; or perhaps it is simply a more realistic view of human behavior than that of Odets (with his young protagonistâ€™s closing speech in which he declares a noble ambition to save the world).
Spectacle lies at the heart of Wilsonâ€™s artâ€”life as spectacle or Hieronymous Bosch painting. The dance of the trolls with their horned heads and female breasts on bare-chested dwarf men is a prime visual moment. There are also great moments in the forest, and others when the sky slowly cracks open, a giant black dagger of shadow splitting the back scrim.
We learn about the vast cast of characters through visual indicators, telling postures and gestures, which prove more important than what they say (since often these characters are deluded). Action literally speaks on stage. The running away is far more important than any vows made before departure. When Peer runs off with the woman in green, they ride on the back of a giant pink pig, revealing their lust and delusion in a powerful visual image. The dwarf-like trolls are a giant freak show: simultaneously perverse and magical. They tie a long tail to Peerâ€™s butt in order to make him less human. He is willing to join them and renounce his human status in order to become heir to their king, but resists having one of his eyes put out so that he can see the world asquint as they do. The Circe-like daughter of the troll king has wooed Peer, but even while he takes on his animal self, he maintains an ambivalent attitude: wanting the power without the mutilation. The trolls represent a temptation to drop down a rung on the great chain of being, but ultimately Peer flees them back into the forest, where his Beatrice figure (the innocent Solveig) finds him. Of course he cannot stay with her, just as Odysseus can not stay too long on any islands en route home to Ithaca. Peer must explore the world before finally returning, an old man, to his homeland.
By the time he is resisting death (in the form of a button-moulder), more than three and one half hours into this production, some of us are ready for him to die, and in fact various members of the audience were scurrying up the dark aisles to the exit before the very final moments. This too is a Wilson trademark: push the audience to its limits. Itâ€™s like climbing a mountain; only the most hardy stay the distance. But for them, it is worth it: to see the tale to its conclusion, to rest in the concluding images, for thus we have survived the journey along with Peer Gynt, survived the ocean waves carrying him back to Norway and the terrible cracks in the fabric of life. If the show goes on too long in its final stumbling and tedious march towards death, maybe that makes it even more true to life.
Wilson has said, â€œIâ€™ve always been fascinated by [Ibsenâ€™s] particular brand of modernism, which can be psychological and very stylized at the same time.â€ Once more with this production of Peer Gynt, Wilson peels the onion of mythic reality a few layers deeper than almost anyone else on the American theatre scene. Viva Robert Wilson. - Victoria Sullivan
Peer Gyntâ€™s BAM Production at the Howard Gilman Opera House has closed;
Odetsâ€™s Awake and Sing is playing at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.