Posts Tagged ‘Einstein on the Beach’

Isango Ensemble’s “A Man of Good Hope” (Young Vic) and Philharmonia Orchestra accompanying Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”

November 10, 2016

Two mini-reviews for shows that are going to be hard to see, as one has only happened twice in five years and the other is coming to the end of its run and is fully sold out.

The night after an election in which a racist candidate pushed an anti-immigrant campaign seemed like an excellent time to see the Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope, about a Somali immigrant and refugee who goes to South Africa in search of a better life. The play was full of the outstanding singing, lively dancing, and endlessly cheerful marimba playing that marks the Isango Ensemble’s work (and strongly justifies the £35 ticket price, which to be honest nearly kept me from coming as I’m really struggling financially right now). But I’d just been listening to an NPR story on how Somali Muslim immigrants are being demonized across the US and I was feeling particularly curious about what the truth was of these people’s experience. The degree of violence people who lived in Somalia in the 80s and 90s experienced is really amazing; I can see how that would have been producing some pretty unusual brain patterns (having your mom shot in front of you; being forced into a militia at 15; rape galore in the refugee camps). And there’s no doubt there were some seriously different cultural issues going on here than anything I’ve seen (although I question which ones were being highlighted as a matter of interest either to the people who make up the company or as a matter of interest to the South African author of the book this show is based upon): for example, how marriage works in Islam; the deep rooted feeling of hospitality that is extended to people of your extended family; how you make a living in a world where there is so little to go around (serving tea? translating? people smuggling?).

And then BAM in your face, the prejudice of the South African townships to the people who had moved there. We’re not talking just calling names – we’re talking wide scale murder, setting people on fire – a level of violence that goes far, far beyond my imagination of how people who hate immigrants treat them. And then there were the cops not coming to help them, but then again not coming to the townships at all – part of the overall problem of post-Apartheid South Africa not delivering for its poor citizenry. The lead character managed to hold on to his sense of self, but by the end of this story he has really just lost so much, over and over again, that I felt burdened with the knowledge that we as a world are just so full of hate for others I barely know how to take a single step forward. But there, I had a chance to get to know what the life of a Somali refugee/immigrant might be like, and in what ways I might perhaps find him very different from me and my experience …. but also how people in a township might be people I would find extremely different from me. But the hatred of the mob seemed too, depressingly, universal.

On the other hand, there was the nearly-sold out performance of the Carl Davis score to the silent movie Napoleon, which I wanted to see as one of those life-list things. Not just the longest movie I had ever seen (two PM to 10 PM with two 15 minute breaks and a 1:50 dinner break), but a genuine epic day and night of art PLUS I’d heard some rumors about how 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? I figured if worse came to worse and I left at the dinner break, I’d still have got £20 worth of cinema, especially given the whole thing was being done with an ORCHESTRA performing the score (no feeble solo piano tinkling along to this masterwork!).

Learning from my lesson from Einstein, I packed as if I were going hiking: flapjacks, crunchy candies, Doritos, a bottle of water, and a candy bar. I had a cup of chai (thank you Southbank Beanie Greeny) beforehand and a tea for the first two intervals, but avoided alcoholic drinks. I also made sure to have preventative toilet trips before the lights went down – important, as it turned out, since we weren’t allowed re-entry for rather a long time. I also allowed myself a nap about 90 minutes in during a sequence I had seen in 9 1/2 millimeter earlier in the summer; while a little bit of the beginning seemed different, most of the content before the first interval was very close to what Kevin Brownlow had shown from his home movie set of reels and I had found the Corsica section kind of dull (despite the amazing camera work during the horse chase scene).

The upshot of this (aside from possibly irritating my neighbors and losing a beautiful pair of gloves in my mad race to the start line) is that I found this film highly enjoyable from end to end, and sat eagerly waiting the next bit when we came to the end of each interval. It’s got some serious problems with over heavy symbolism (oh, the eagle in the school scene! and all of the other scenes!) and a bad case of hero worship that rendered many scenes unintentionally comic, but MAN. Did I buy in to Napoleon as a leader able to come up with excellent strategy and incredible levels of leadership during some piss poor times in French history? Damned straight. Did I think he was a hero who led his country to the heights? Well, not so much. And did I find Josephine unexpectedly enchanting? Um, no. But this movie, I found it enchanting – partially as a work of propaganda (but an unfrightening one, unlike Leni Riefenstahl), partially as the focused work of an incredibly creative mind. OH the revolutionaries of France’s terror and their hurdy gurdy player and the pet bunny! OH the crazy, crazy Violine, with her own personal altar to Napoleon, dressed as a bride and praying and MAD! OH Napoleon’s ridiculous lack of a sense of humor! OH the shimmering silks and nudity and madness at the Victims’ Ball! And you know, I think I came out of it with a slightly better understanding of French history. So while it wasn’t perfect, there was… oh wait, I forgot … THE MOMENT WHERE THEY OPENED THE CURTAINS AND THE OTHER TWO PROJECTORS CAME ON AND THE SCREEN WAS SUDDENLY TRIPLED IN SIZE. Fuck you Stanley Kubric, fuck Lawrence of Arabia, here’s sixty musicians and a screen the width of a football field AND A FUCKING ARMY ON THE SCREEN. And all the way through it the orchestra SERIOUSLY heightened the experience.

Yeah baby.

And there was a moment when Napoleon said that he had a vision …. of a Europe where every one was free … of a Europe where there were no borders. And the audience as one clapped and cheered. What an experience.

So three more days to catch Isango Ensemble, and Napoleon is apparently

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

May 8, 2012

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.)