Two wind-up boys in an absurdist tale: ‘The Old Woman’ (Willem Dafoe & Mikhail Baryshnikov, directed by Robert Wilson)

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Perfection can be boring. I guess it came down to that. On paper it looked very enticing: the great Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a play directed by the equally great Robert Wilson, based on a piece of absurdist literature, a novella by Russian writer Daniil Charms. I sure spent a wonderful evening, at deSingel (Antwerp), watching The Old Woman, a splendid piece of theatrical machinery at work. But did it leave a lingering impression, apart from that? No.

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‘People come to see his shows. They don’t come to see who’s performing. The Old Woman is 200 percent Bob Wilson’s play. He is the master of ceremonies.’ It’s a nice way to put it, and Mikhail Baryshnikov is right, in a way, as anyone who has seen The Old Woman will probably admit. Sure, you get to see two wonderful, highly skilled actors, switching from Japanese style theatre, to vaudeville and slapstick, throwing in strange voices and squeaks. But have you seen something that was undeniably Baryshnikov, or Dafoe? No, it’s as if they were erased. I guess it’s what happens if you step into Robert Wilson’s universe: you become part of the mechanics of the Swiss watch his performances tend to resemble.

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The Old Woman – 12 scenes and an epilogue, adapted by American novelist Darryl Pinckney – looks like some sort of musical box or wind-up toy. And you have to admit: Wilson is unsurpassable when it comes to constructing theatrical images; using props, light and sound. He really is a wizard and his tableaux are amazing. (And let’s not forget to mention the music of producer/composer Hal Willner. It fits perfectly.) But it’s that same perfection that makes The Old Woman also a ‘cold’ performance. The actors – playing the same person, but also different people, sometimes switching roles – are just pawns in his construction. It’s not the lack of a narrative in this absurdist tale that makes you switch off, after a while. It’s that it resembles a piece of machinery. Beautiful, but bland in its perfection.

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Two last remarks. One: do try to catch H, An incident, a theatre performance by Belgian director Kris Verdonck, also based on the work of Daniil Charms. It’s far from perfect, but it feels more ‘human’ than The Old Woman and it has really interesting and funny moments. Two: funny how the faces (with that hair) of Dafoe and Baryshnikov resembled a series of sculptures (self portraits) by Belgian artist Jan Fabre, from 2010.

'Chapter IV' (Jan Fabre, 2010; photo Pat Verbruggen; courtesy Angelos)

Want to read the original ‘Old Woman’? You’ll find it here.

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