Now this is what makes the Manchester International Festival cool. Let a visionary director loose on an obviously wild and crazy, but absolutely dazzling, idea, with defiantly large-scale production values and determined support. Then sit back and watch the fireworks when it’s presented not in some relatively obscure arts venue but in a mainstream theatre right in the middle of town, the sort of place where (and absolutely no insult intended) they’re rather more used to staging the likes of Dirty Dancing. Wonderfully, you somehow then have audiences falling over themselves to get tickets for an event that in almost any other context, they would probably run a mile from. That really is genius – and so, as it happens, is this extraordinary production.

Let me say straightaway that I have no real idea what The Old Woman, starring Willem Dafoe and dancer-turned-actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, was ‘about’, and, to be honest, I don’t really care. Moreover, like practically everyone else I know, I had no idea who Russian writer Daniil Kharms was before the production was announced. Don’t be ashamed to admit it – even director Robert Wilson admits he was unfamiliar with his work until quite recently. If you should wish to read the original, very short story on which the production is based, it’s available here.

But it’s almost irrelevant as the point of this remarkable production, like Wilson’s The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic (the Manchester Theatre Award-winning production from MIF11) and indeed much of Wilson’s work, is to essentially experience it on a purely visceral level, allowing any greater import to slowly filter into your consciousness.

THE OLD WOMAN rehearsals 04 credit Lucie JanschAs Dafoe, surely one of the greatest actors of this generation and who also worked with Wilson on The Life And Death Of Marina  Abramovic, points out, the director “enters the rehearsal room with a blank book. Rather than trying to make what’s in his head, he prefers to see what is in the room, hear the text, listen to the music, play with the space, light and scenic elements, create a structure for the actors”.

That’s very much what you see in evidence here, where the lighting and staging sometimes looks a little like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon. Startling, yet simple images dazzle you from moment to moment as Dafoe and Baryshnikov deliver brilliantly antic performances, mirroring and commenting on each other’s characters, even at one point hilariously and literally parroting each other.

It’s absurdly funny, it might even be profound and it’s utterly compelling. It’s also very much of a whole so it would be remiss of me not to also praise Hal Willner’s terrific soundscape as well as Jacques Reynaud’s costumes and, of course, the lighting which is such an integral part of Wilson’s approach.

Inevitably, if you aren’t ready to strap yourself in for quite such a wild ride then it might all seem like the most unutterable nonsense. But then, that’s part of the fun too, isn’t it?

Review by Kevin Bourke


What: The Old Woman – Manchester International Festival

Where: The Palace Theatre, Oxford Road, Manchester

When: until July 7, 2013

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