Review – Walking – Robert Wilson at Norfolk and Norwich Festival


Imagine if you will: the beach. Really cool art. A promenade that is really a promenade. And the art is made by Robert Wilson, shit hot theatrical all purpose genius whose Einstein on the Beach is pretty darned fresh in my mind. Now that would be an installation art experience you would have to see.

Even if it was a part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Which Walking is. And, while I don’t have any particular feelings for or against any festival (other than the Edinburgh Fringe), this did mean that to see this thing I was going to have to travel to a whole new place: in this place, Holkham, a town so small that even the bus driver whom I asked in Kings Lynn (where I was supposed to pick up my bus to get to Holkham!) had not heard of it. And to get there from London, I first had to take a train (for about two hours), and only THEN could I catch the bus for my further hour and a half on the bus to the actual destination (arriving twenty minutes later than expected).

The bonus? In the end, the public transportation thing DID totally work. British Rail delivered me on time to Kings Lynn, and the #1 Coasthopper bus did turn up as promised about five minutes after my train did, then magically turned into a #2 at Hunstanton so that I could make it the rest of the way without changing buses. And the meetup point for walking was just a five minute walk from the bus stop, in a field off of a path leading to the ocean, and clearly signed. The bus was twenty minutes later than I expected, but since I’d planned on arriving forty five minutes early (as advised), I was still on time.

Negative: I had ten minutes before things were going to start and I had not had any opportunity since 8:45 AM (when I caught my train from King’s Cross) to purchase a sandwich as First Capitol Connect don’t offer so much as a bag of crisps for sale on their trains. The instructions for the walk said to bring no food, so I hadn’t packed emergency rations, counting on a BIT more of a gap somewhere along the line to hit a sandwich shop. And if there was a sandwich shop in Holkham (or even a convenience store), I never found it. However, I ran to the nearby Victoria pub and was able, for a mere £7.95, to convince them to make me an egg and cress sandwich wrapped in foil which I ate as quickly as possible.

Note: bring food. There is none on site. An apple doesn’t cut it.

Negative: waiting. Too much waiting. We waited about 20 minutes for our pickup to the walk start site, then waited about half an hour to actually be able to start the walk. This particularly aggravated me because I could have enjoyed my little sandwich a bit more. Now, the wait at the event start point was because we were being sent through one at a time with about a five minute gap between person, but the effective point was that you had to stand there, in the lovely open air, in a f**king queue, which to be honest was the one thing I wanted least to be doing on a day which, in my mind, was going to be about being outside and walking. Given that we were 1) about to be on our feet for four hours and 2) not going to be talking to anyone else for that time, I would have much preferred it if we could have spent that time sitting in a convivial circle and visiting with each other until our number was called (as it were). Waiting became, by default, a part of this event, and it was not managed well.

So, let’s now pretend that all of the effort of getting there via public transportation and trying to get food on short notice and under duress and standing in line for half an hour did not happen, and start at the beginning of the experience as I imagine Robert Wilson planned it:

You come up to an entry to a field. In the distance is a giant box (?) of plywood, with a black curtain across the front. A yellow rain jumper clad guard bars the entry to the plywood. People are slowly, slowly walking toward the curtain, then disappearing. Perhaps they are being turned into sausages, because they do not seem to emerge anywhere.

You are now about to enter the field. A kindly, yellow rain jumper clad guide comes up and tells you your journey is about to start. She then walks beside you for a bit, helping you align yourself to the very slow, deliberate pace you are supposed to follow for this event. You then walk, slowly, to the black curtain. After a bit of instruction, the guard lets you in.

The room is totally black. You sit there and wonder when it will not be black. No light comes in at all: there is a deep booming coming from the other side of the wall. Eventually (three minutes later?) the black velvet cracks and a door opens in front of you, revealing, not a box, but an open-roofed enclosure with two story tall, brown reed covered walls on three and a half sides, a sand-covered floor, and a deep black pit in the middle (the bottom is not visible) surrounded by raked sand. Five people are stood around the edges, almost like time markers on sundial. The walls are pulsing with some kind of very deep sound. I am walked to an open position, facing the pit. Another person is walked out the gap, away from the door; after a while, someone comes through the door and is walked to the newly opened position.

After about 15 minutes (maybe 20? we weren’t allowed to bring anything that showed the time, although of course I had my phone in my pocket so I could tweet the whole thing) I was brought to the gap and shown the path, and again reminded of the slow pace. I was told to look for the white rocks that marked the path in case I lost sight of the person in front of me (which I was told I would as the path turned at various points). I then sat off.

It was a very nice day, overcast, not hot and not raining. On one side was a fenced field with cows. Ahead I could see about four other walkers. As time went on, I caught several of them, presumably separated from their companions, looking over their shoulders nervously; I couldn’t help but think of Lot’s wife.

We continued slowly, slowly walking along past a creek with rushes growing out of it; past a field with a foal napping in it; past more horses; over a newly made wooden bridge; over a specially made stile. Eventually we went up a tiny, tree covered hill, where the other walkers finally disappeared. I never felt tempted to look behind me, but I couldn’t help but feel the pressure to WALK FASTER and I saw the woman in front of me frequently having to stop herself so she didn’t overrun the elderly lady just ahead of her.

Our next art installation was … basically two tall wooden walls with about a shoulder’s width of space between them. After this, we walked on the edge of a pond.

Finally, we got to the actual sand dunes, which were riddled with holes from rabbit warrens. A dead rabbit, flattened by time, seemed a deliberately placed metaphor I wasn’t quite able to translate. Then over the hill and …

into a world of grey cubes with people sat on them. I had found the rest area! There were also two narrow tables with artistically placed bottles of water and apples (alternating) across them. I was greeted and advised to use the rest facilities and help myself to the food, and told that a particular cube was mine to sit on until a guide came by to “take me on the rest of my journey.” This area seemed jammed with people I hadn’t seen before, and, of course, since there was a gap for the walking, there was a very long wait while all of us were processed … it did feel a tiny bit like something out of a myth, and the mood music was probably supposed to help us feel that we were in a timeless place. But somehow people felt a bit rushed and uncomfortable. But I sat there on my grey cube and listened to the music and imagined myself in a Magritte painting and imagined that we were all off on heroic quests …

Then it was my turn. A guide came to me and helped recalibrate my steps so they were nice and slow, then mentioned that, as I was heading into a hilly area, I needed to be looking for white sticks instead of the stones as before.

This section of the walk, with the twisted pine trees and lovely texture of the hills, was actually more fun than the other half, as it seemed to be more close to the land of fairy tales. But I couldn’t escape the trudging of the people ahead of me. They’d stopped looking behind them, but now the woman behind me was needing to just completely stop at times to allow the woman ahead of her to keep at a reasonable distance; and I could feel the disappointment of the people behind me when I, in turn, stopped to keep the gaps level.

At last we broke out of the woods and into the pure sand dunes, and there, in the distance, was the tiny point of a pyramid – the next installation of the path. It was very iconic on the horizon and fun to walk toward and watch grow larger. It was actually about three stories tall when we finally got to it, and there was a little hole allowing us to go into it (and out again). Inside there was some kind of sound coming from overhead. I loved the space, but was hustled out by a guide as I was apparently fooling around a bit too long.

Once we’d gotten out, we were just a few steps from the very end – the front of the long beach at Holkham, beautiful with the tide out, covered with long, narrow clam shells. Above the tide line were about eight platforms facing the sea; we were encouraged to go stand on one (there was a ledge of about a foot) and then be slowly winched so our horizon line went up, up, up, away from the sea, to the sky, so we were laying on our backs, listening to the water, watching the sky. It was very nice (if initially disorienting) and I sat there for rather a while with my eyes closed, grateful the sun wasn’t shining any more brightly.

And then, of course, it began to rain. I asked to be returned to level ground, and was told I was near the end of the walk, just ahead, where there were water bottles and flapjack (yum!). So … I went and got my water and my flapjack … and was told I had a THREE MILE walk back to the start of the walk, or, if I wanted, I could go to the shuttle pickup nearby, where the minibus came by every half hour at an indeterminate time.

I realized I was in a bit of a pickle as it was getting to be the time when the bus back to King’s Lynn was only going to coming once an hour, and the rain was now coming down quite hard. I went forward toward the spot I’d been told was the turn off (“near the blue tent”), and, hoping for the best, headed back into the dunes looking for the pickup zone, only to find myself wandering lost in the sandy hills (and then the trees), only finding the occasionally sunning naturist. What had happened to our white poles and rocks? How was it, that after all of this effort to guide us for four hours, we were just completely forgotten about at the end and dumped into the middle of nowhere with nothing more than a “it’s thataway” to help us find our way back?

By the time I finally made it back to Holkham proper, I was wet, hungry, desperate for a wee, and more than just a little pissed off (did I mention hungry? that don’t bring food thing was crap). I had five minutes left until the bus came … but given the choice between two hours on a bus with a full bladder and missing the bus, I decided portapotty takes precedence. I then finally made my way back to the bus stop …

only to discover 1) I’d been looking at the Sunday schedule, and the bus now came ten minutes earlier than I’d been aiming for and

2) the bus was, for some reason, running half an hour late. The woman who’d started the walk with me was furious at the bus’ tardiness (as she thought it meant she’d miss the exchange in Hunstanton, but again it was the same bus) as she’d gone full speed through most of the installation and had been waiting for it for all of the time it was supposed to have been there. But to me, it just meant I got to catch the bus and not wait for another hour, and I was grateful.

We sat next to each other on the way back and talked about the show. To her, it was “zen fascism,” a phrase I thought hysterical and somewhat mood lifting in its implied rage. She, too, had travelled from London for this event, and she, too, agreed with me: it was just really not all that much in the end, and certainly not worth the tremendous effort we’d made to get there (including, for me, taking a day’s holiday from work). One open top box, one wooden wall, one cute lunch area, the pyramid, the platforms. Well, the platforms were cool, but they still weren’t worth the effort, and the overall collapse of the event at the end of the trail really just made the whole day incredibly painful.

Ah well. Next time, I’ll just take a walk on the beach, and pack a sandwich.

(This review for walking was based on the events of August 21st, 2012. Signage may have been improved by now. The event continues through September 2nd.)

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6 Responses to “Review – Walking – Robert Wilson at Norfolk and Norwich Festival”

  1. mark Says:

    is this a review of north norfolk’s public transportation system?

    • webcowgirl Says:

      It’s a review of everything including whether or not it’s reasonable to try to do this if you don’t have a car.

  2. Goldie Says:

    you were obviously never prepared for the walk in the first place if you planned on Tweeting throughout…

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I see myself as reporting on the experience so that was my intent from the beginning. I did, however, not check the time at any point; to me, it was as innocuous as writing little messages and thumbtacking them on to the trees.

  3. Meredith Hopkins Says:

    First, the positive: the ‘angels’ could not have been more pleasant, and one felt it churlish to be honest when they earnestly enquired, ‘but you did enjoy the walk, didn’t you?’

    As an ageing hippy type, not averse to a bit of Zen reflection, I had been rather looking forward to this experience but found it hard to engage. Soaked to the skin – about 4 minutes in – I found myself increasingly irritated by being made to walk through ‘installations’ knocked up from B&Q offcuts.

    Increasingly convinced that this was a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, I opted to cry off at the half-way mark, a decision which flustered the angels who appeared to have no plan in place for somebody who chose to walk no further.

    It was a nice idea which needed better weather and more thorough contingency planning..

  4. Tony Says:

    I have belatedly just read this review and can only comment that I am amazed.
    The reviewer must have been on a completely wavelength. She maybe also doesn’t appreciate that in music the gaps between the notes are just as important as the notes. In art what is left out has as much significance as what is painted. There needs to be silence as well as bird-song. Get a grip woman!
    The experience was FANTASTIC and two years later I’m still enjoying it.

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