The old woman in Robert Wilson’s adaptation of Daniil Kharms’ story never turns up – she lingers in the slabs of text uttered by William Defoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov with slippery, slapstick certainty. She’s addressed, recalled, mocked and torn apart until we become hungry for her to appear, for her presence.
Defoe and Baryshnikov play two clowns – vaudevillians and devils. They tackle every distinct aspect of Kharms’ story, enacting and contracting meaning. The Old Woman contains an element of political satire which is new to Wilson’s recent work. From the dense layers of Russian avant garde literary history, the production creates something muddy and tendentious; it doesn’t exactly scrape off the dust, but it plays with its consistency. It’s a production with moments of brutal clarity and ironic eccentricity.
Russian born Kharms was a disputed reactionary. Born in the same year as the storming of the Winter Palace, he was a transitory member of the Red Army, once arrested for “distracting the people from the construction of socialism”, an exiled satirist and a publisher of children’s books who was murdered by the Russian KGB. Kharms was no regular avant-gardist. Despite being associated with the likes of Beckett or Ionesco, his interest in and engagement with the nonsensical stems from an irreconcilably fractured relationship with the era that marked his life. His language was weighted with social satire, inundated by the impasses of impoverished domesticity, avidly rendering the absurd as a way to represent rather than deconstruct.
There’s a palpable otherness to Wilson’s production which is reflective of its intriguing relationship with the source material. In Darryl Pinckney’s adaptation of the text, the temporality and weight of the story gets deconstructed. The beginning is the show’s Epilogue; the dense imagery of the story doesn’t simply get translated for the stage, it’s dissipated and contracted. Action and image are irrevocably tied together with Wilson’s visual precision, his playing with scale and his particularly dense color palette. Whites, greys and blacks are set against bright yellows and reds – invoking a historical moment with subtle irony, but also recalling the literary implications of this imagery. Think Kafka, Caroll and Bulgakov. This set of references creates an intriguing set of juxtapositions that allow for the deployment of such particular theatrical language as vaudeville and Noh with playfulness and irony. It seems Wilson isn’t searching for Kharms’ atheism in The Old Woman; he isn’t conjuring the world in which a magician fails to create his magic, but turning the story inside out, looking at its loopholes and layers of meaning in order to better understand what fueled this expression in the first place.
In Kharms’ short story, an impoverished writer encounters an ageing woman who can tell the time despite the clocks having no hands. The story, narrated in first person and always in present tense, consists of the series of events which follow this encounter. Defoe and Baryshnikov are like two parts of the same character, a distorted repetition of each other, with brief interventions of independence. In this game of action and image, they tease out the dark satire and palpable energy of Kharms’ story with muscular precision, drawing on Noh, vaudeville and slapstick to color in the empty spaces deliberately left in Wilson’s staging.
With clownish white faces and drawn on expressions, Defoe and Baryshnikov bring a particular elasticity to the character. Defoe’s sombre, heavy voice and rigid expressionism provides a powerful contrast with Baryshnikov’s energetic physicality and slapstick humour. Theirs is a showmanship that exceeds the theatrical remit of the story itself, which means that at times, you’re enjoying watching the tennis game rather than following its language; the conceit of technique is subtle and powerful in a dense engagement with a rich and fractured narrative. The two are never ghosts in their own story, and in moments of brutal domesticity – the hunger that dominates Kharms’ story is represented in dead animals and plastic sausages – there’s a palpable energy that bathes these bricks of text with irony and meaning.
Instead of searching for metaphors or attempting to recast the story, Wilson has bathed it with references and juxtapositions. It’s not just the sheer geometry that stems from a complex relationship to Kharms’ own engagement with meaning, drawing on thick layers of text that in this instance are often merely props. There’s also plastic red sausages coming from the sky, bent beds, colourful hammers and chickens and distended hands, all condensed by the sculptural lighting that’s become Wilson’s trademark. It’s an almost two dimensional rendition of the process of sculpting and composing a literary text whose components seem devoid of meaning, stripped of context. Throughout the ninety minutes, this is what develops onstage – a sense of inquiry that isolates a particular interest with the socio-political nuances of Kharms’ story without any clear historical delineation. Sure, the images comes first, as they do in every Wilson show, but the language is more than just a prop here; it speaks of failures and anxieties, quests for meaning in the absurdity of the every day, old women who can tell the time without reading the clock.