Mini-review – Einstein on the Beach – Philip Glass Ensemble at the Barbican


NOTE: If you are going to see this, I have some advice. 1. Pack water. It is allowed. You may feel too anxious to wait in line to get some when you are outside. 2. Eat beforehand; you can make it for four hours fifteen minutes without a meal. 3. When the curtain goes down and you just have people singing in front of it, this is your good chance to go to the bathroom. 4. Not much happens early in any scene. This is also a good time to pop out, say if you need a bite to eat. 5. Candy etc is not supposed to be allowed but I do really think a bit of sugar helps keep the energy levels up and your bags aren’t confiscated. A bag of M&Ms or Minstrels could really affect your enjoyment of the show. Just don’t crackle! 6. The audience does come and go, so remember to keep your bag or coat between and behind your feet. Be kind and turn your feet aside to help them pass. 7. If you’re coming back in, don’t hesitate with the door open as it’s distracting to the people sitting nearby. Instead, be sure you’ve got the right row before you go in, then just move on through. Also, don’t expect people to stand – the rows at the Barbican are thankfully wide so you can get by without them moving at all, provide they have tucked their bags behind their feet as described.

What, exactly, is Einstein on the Beach? It’s described as an opera with a length (five hours) that makes attendance a bit of a competitive sport. As presented by the Barbican, it’s a show with a price that makes attendance a bragging point (cheapest £35; restricted view £75; almost everything in the stalls £125). With a look at its provenance, it’s a work of historical importance, to an extent because of the innovative collaboration between composer Philip Glass and designer Robert Wilson.

So why would I want to go? In the end, it was because I like the music of Glass. I was also interested in seeing an iconic work – one for the life list, you know (I’d admired the photographs of the production way back in my grad school days). And while the price was really too high, I decided to just bite it and scale down the rest of my show attendance instead.

Einstein on a violin

Three months after I bought those tickets, though, my will to endure evaporated before I even entered the auditorium. I received an email from the Barbican letting me know there was going to be no interval. WHAT MY GOD FIVE HOURS MY TINY BLADDER! My panic was reduced by a note saying that “the audience is invited to enter and exit at liberty during the performance” … but that led to other worries i.e. how lame would it be to have people walking on front of me constantly during the show? And then the line “Food and drink (other than bottled water) will not be permitted in the auditorium” suddenly brought it home: I was looking at a marathon, and it was not looking very fun. The thought of “one for the life list” disappeared into a haze of “aargh” even though I’d deliberately picked a day to go that would leave me an entire day to recover before going back to work. What did I want to do? Chill out. When did I want to do it? Sunday, May 6th, 2012.

What was going to keep me from doing it? The money. £75 was a hearty investment, and, at best, if I returned my ticket I might only be able to get some credit for it which I would probably never be able to spend given the Barbican’s labyrinthine redemption policies. Or I might just lose it all. I decided to suck it up rather than entirely blowing the cashola. The breakdown: show up at 4 PM as planned, then leave in time to actually get a real dinner. Screw staying for five hours, screw taking a twenty minute break so I could get something solid to eat and then return having completely lost the plot: I was just going to leave when I wanted to and feel no pressure at all to “make it to the end.” And, frankly, if I was having an absolutely rotten time, I was just going to leave whenever the heck I felt like it and consider it an exercise in reclaiming my time for myself, given that the money was already gone. (I did hope, however, that I would enjoy the music enough that I would be able to hold on all the way through until my appetite chased me out the door.)

This all sounds just terribly grouchy, but I felt it was fair to let you know what my mindset was before I went into the show, and that I was deliberately planning on leaving before the end. Giving myself an out lifted my spirits and strengthened my resolve to attend at least some of this show; if I was amazed, I could always snarf down a horrible cold sandwich and go back in for the whole thing.


Einstein on the Beach suffers from being called an opera, which gives the viewer all sorts of preconceptions about what they are going to experience: something involving plot, say, or emotion, or maybe even Einstein. I think it would be best to walk in expecting music with visualizations, and not narrative music or even music that causes images to appear in your head. (Apparently it was designed pictorially first, with the music coming afterward.) What with the addition of all sorts of lighting, costuming, and dance, it does ultimately form a “gesamtkunstwerk” – but it isn’t an opera. Leave the mental limitations of opera behind and the baggage loss will free you greatly.

I don’t think, however, it will cause you to enjoy yourself. Both the movement (choreographed by Lucinda Childs) and the music is extremely repetitive: listening to a chorus count, “One two three! One two three!” over and over, I realized I’d never before thought that so much tension could be built around waiting for someone to get to four. In addition to the singing of numbers and note words (i.e. do re mi), there were little nonsense speeches that were repeated until the words became stripped of meaning. They certainly never had anything to do with the action on stage and, I believe, no context; they were just words formed into sentences with a dream logic at best, pronounced as if by a parrot.

That said, the images created on stage were interesting, but the buildup to these images was so extended that my senses were dulled when the “climactic moment” occurred. As I expected, I enjoyed the music and hearing it performed live, but with nothing to really engage my brain (in the way narrative would, and more varied movement might have), I found myself entering into an almost hypnotic state and occasionally taking micronaps.

Was it worth my £75 and the three hours I gave it? I think the answer is yes, in part because of the “group experience” of it all (including dealing with the new experience of people going in and out of the theater – sometimes tripping over my feet – while the music carried on, and the awareness that in the heaving theater everyone was performing a calculus as to when was the ideal time to hit the loo). That said, I didn’t feel particularly sorry about the time that I missed, especially since I didn’t feel like most of the scenes/acts merited more than about five minutes of eyeball time. I also feel better about what I saw/did because of leaving when I did, as it meant I felt I got the most joy possible out of my Bank Holiday Sunday (and didn’t spend the evening dealing with an increasingly miserable empty stomach). As it turns out, the whole thing lasted only another hour and fifteen minutes from my three-hours-in scheduled departure; it’s likely I could have stayed, but I’m not bothered that I didn’t. My husband said he left (at the end) feeling “oddly uplifted:” I can say I shared that feeling, only seventy-five minutes sooner than he did.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, May 5th, 2012. The production continues through May 13th. As a comedy note, I kept trying to say Robert Wilson and accidentally saying Robert Plant: I wonder what an opera designed by him would look like? For an alternate review, please see Gareth James’ comemntary. For a thoughtful analysis of the work as performed in New York, please see Dance Tab‘s Marina Harss.)

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4 Responses to “Mini-review – Einstein on the Beach – Philip Glass Ensemble at the Barbican”

  1. Relatively speaking – Einstein on the Beach « ginger in jars Says:

    […] Life in the Cheap Seats (very useful practical tips in surviving 4.5 hours of opera) […]

  2. nikkimusingsandthoughts Says:

    Having tried opera 3 times can say not my bag, but like the idea of having the choice to have little breaks. I think I would try this one just to experience this format on the back of your review

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Very kind of you to say so. Some little bit of me wants to go back for the last hour and do it as a historical thing but obviously can’t afford to buy another seat!

  3. Isango Ensemble’s “A Man of Good Hope” (Young Vic) and Philharmonia Orchestra accompanying Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] it was shown with three projectors at the same time and WOW. I had failed at River of Fundament and Einstein on the Beach at a mere 5 hours each; could I somehow soldier (HA HA!) though this five and a half hour marathon? […]

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