Living up to the promise of delivering an epic amalgam of non-naturalistic theatre, Einstein on the Beach is certainly a unique feast for the senses. This pristine American staging is a faithful reproduction of the storied piece. Music, song and dance are of a high quality, with the restrictive nature of the auditorium the only drawback to the intermission-free presentation.
With most, if not all, of the general “rules” for theatre broken, the piece defies review. There will be as many reactions to Einstein on the Beach as there are seats sold. Even within the marathon four and a half hour performance, various sequences drew different responses from around the auditorium.
Even the creation of the show broke regular protocols, with composer Phillip Glass and Director/Designer Robert Wilson working independently before synthesizing their efforts into a cohesive whole. This version uses the choreography by Lucinda Childs, a dancer in the original 1976 production. The minimalist style involves frequent repetition of motifs of music, text and dance, with changes in state by the lights and sets achieved at a very slow, precise pace.
Entering the auditorium, the audience finds that the performance has already begun, with performers on stage and in the orchestra pit. Even before the house lights slowly dim, the audience comes to an expectant hush. The initial repeated string of numbers and words has the effect of calming and focusing the audience, allowing them to slowly cast off the thoughts and troubles of the day so as to prepare for full engagement of the immersive experience that is to come.
As the evening progresses, various scenes are established, all without much suggestion of time or place, and no throughline of character or plot whatsoever. Highlights include an elaborate, fully populated courtroom scene, which is later cleaved in half to include a prison. The strikingly beautiful lighting for “Spaceship” features intricate patterns of light globes that cast a warmly nostalgic golden light.
There is a special beauty to Glass’ music that is difficult to describe. By turns soothing and stimulating, its mesmerising quality is the major factor in the audience’s immersion in the show. The Philip Glass Ensemble is centred around a pair of synthesizers, with other players moving in and out of the pit as required. The unique harmonies of the choral singing are gorgeous to hear, especially when sung with such precision.
Solo singing and spoken dialogue are undermined by the sound system, which creates a noticeable disconnect between performer and sound, as the sound is transmitted from a pair of speaker stacks flanking the stage. This fact, combined with the completely understated acting style, means that it is often extremely difficulty to determine who is singing/speaking at any time.
Childs’ choreography in “Dance 1” and “Dance 2” is hard to fully appreciate given the far superior work performed by The Australian Ballet in any of their triple bills. Both the dance steps and the configurations of dancers seems too basic and unsophisticated in comparison to the music and overall staging, which still contain avant-garde wonder. Perhaps this aspect of the piece had more impact in earlier stagings.
A few virtuosic performances stand out from the evenly matched ensemble. Antoine Silverman shows great concentration and skill on the violin as the figure of Einstein, seated in the foreground for much of the night. Andrew Sternman gives a terrific extended solo on the tenor saxophone during “Building.” Caitlin Scranton displays unflagging energy and flair doing the Diagonal Dance during “Train.”
Although housing the season in the State Theatre provides the possibility of an economically viable run, the stated intention, which is that audiences are invited to leave and re-enter the auditorium, is severely restricted by the close layout of the long rows of seats. Movement unavoidably involves the interruption of viewing for surrounding patrons, and the perpetual shine of ushers’ torches as they help patrons back to their seats is a distraction.
Einstein on the Beach offers hardy viewers a rare theatrical opportunity. Have a solid meal, take care of ablutions and prepare to lose yourself in the wonder.
Einstein on the Beach plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until Sunday 4 August 2013.
This review published on Theatre People 1 August 2013