Ssomewhere between revisiting his first encounter with the theater (“it was so boring, with those people playing”), delivering a perfect imitation of Tom Waits’ blistered croon, and recalling how he and Samuel Beckett bonded around a shared love of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Robert Wilson begins to draw on a sheet of paper.
With just a few strokes, he renders Beckett’s set of Happy Days and its famously trapped female protagonist. “Beckett’s best works are those that are treated in a very artificial way, like Keaton or Chaplin,” says the veteran American director and artist.
“It’s all dance, it’s all timing and the makeup is artificial. It’s this other world and I’m always surprised that people try to do it in this more naturalistic way. He wrote an image that goes with the text and you can’t have this woman sitting on the street waiting for a bus.
Naturalism is not a word associated with the theater maker, who is now 81 years old. Over the past six decades, in his work and collaborations with everyone from William Burroughs to Lady Gaga, Wilson has not so much avoided naturalism as refused to leave it anywhere. near the building. His latest project, premiering at the Es Baluard museum in Palma de Mallorca on Saturday night, is no exception.
Ubu, a performance that oscillates between theatre, soundscape and visual art installation, is an exploration of Alfred Jarry’s outrageous 1896 play Ubu Roi and Joan Miró’s lifelong obsession with Jarry’s text.
A deeply subversive tale of power, tyranny, cruelty, violence – and the strange marauding bear – Ubu Roi caused a riot on his first night 126 years ago. Jarry’s dramatic foreshadowing of surrealism, dadaism and the theater of the absurd came to fascinate Miró, who made drawings and puppets from the play, and found parallels between dictator Ubu and General Franco.
As Wilson points out, the subject of Jarry and Miró is both topical and timeless. “It’s in some ways very timely with this terrible war that we have now in Ukraine with the Russians,” he says. “And it’s not unlike the time when [Miró’s] work was created, with Franco. But it’s one of those myths that playwrights have been writing about for centuries.
The draw for the director was the absurdity of Ubu and his collision between the terrifying and the comic. Humor, he says, “can make a situation that much more terrifying. And we shouldn’t actually do theater if we can’t laugh or if we don’t have that distance from matter. It is the space behind the mask that gives power to the space in front. It’s not a counterpoint; it is to find the good point”.
Wilson’s new take, a sinister, multilingual pantomime bathed in red light and looped in noise, is rightly violent, absurd, disturbing and infantile. Amid the chaos and bloodshed, playful dance routines cover scene changes and the bear from Jarry’s original Waves addresses the audience.
According to the director of the Es Baluard museum, Imma Prieto, the idea of the piece is to remind the public that Ubu and his murderous mediocrity never really disappeared.
“We are called to open cracks in creation, exposing gaps from which courageous and free gestures could speak out against injustice and barbarism,” she says.
Wilson says that Miró’s visual interpretations of Jarry’s work offered him a kind of freedom and suited his approach to theatre. And a puppet, he notes, featured in his first play, The King of Spain, in the late 1960s. “So when I was asked to do this work, I thought of this great puppet that I had and in a way, it goes back to my origins, my roots.”
In particular, Ubu appealed to what Wilson describes as his “painterly” state of mind. “The scenic image is a kind of mask for a text. Very often, I stage a work – whether it’s Wagner’s The Ring or Hamlet – first visually, then I add text. The visual book is as important as the audio.
In life, adds Wilson, what we see is just as important as what we hear. And, very often, there is a tension between the two.
“Half an hour ago I saw Donald Trump on TV. If you listen to what he says, it’s one thing. But if you watch, you’ll see it’s a lie. The body do not lie.
Wilson is reluctant to speculate on his early audience’s reaction to the piece’s Palma. But he says his highly visual style tends to make border crossings easier.
“Even tonight, where I speak a lot about the English text myself, and where I would say 50% of the audience won’t understand the words, because it’s staged visually, there’s no barrier of the tongue,” he said, “It’s what you see. What I see is what I see, and what I hear is what I hear. Ideally, anyone can enter into this theater tonight and get something out of it.
While Saturday’s pristine audience often didn’t know when to laugh and when to wince, it ultimately gave Wilson a standing ovation rather than the riot Jarry faced. And while the coin has lost some of its shock value over the past 100 years, the world it reflects has not.
“It was pretty shocking to see the television half an hour ago,” Wilson says. “Donald Trump’s charts and popularity. It’s quite shocking.
Robert Wilson’s Ubu is at the Es Baluard Museum, Palma de Mallorca, until October 23. Sam Jones’ trip was provided by Es Baluard.