“The night should be a time of peace and tranquility”. So says the driver of an immense steam engine as the great herald of the industrial revolution makes it way majestically across the stage.
As the audience rustle into their seats any preparation to suspend belief is completely disrupted as the show already seems to be underway. There is the growing realization that rather than arriving in the space to be told a story, Einstein invites us to experience story.
Dressed in white shirts with baggy grey pants held up with suspenders the opening Knee Play introduces the audience to the delightfully mind stuttering experience of Christopher Knowles’ poetry interspersed with random numbers from one to eight. As this dialogue (if we can call it that) unfolds a dozen choristers make their way to join the instrumentalists and begin to create the vast and clearly recognizable aural landscape for which Philip Glass is known. The resulting aurality as the three-note organ drones merges the smooth lyricism with impeccable diction; voices count numbers while other intone the solfège syallables (la, sol, do) creating a sensually harmonious haunting experience.
The Knee Plays that punctuate four major acts each of which illustrates an element of Einstein’s life in no particular order. To summarize is to lose some of the magic: Einstein seems to have liked trains as a youngster, enjoyed playing the violin and clearly spent a lot of time fiddling with numbers and doing calculations. How prosaic. And this is because (simply or otherwise) each of the major acts is an exploration of the senses, an aesthetic feast; and while the text may elude any form of comprehension certain refrains will echo invariably creating an alternative form of rhythmic logic.
The Trial/Prison scene (about half-way through) and the Spaceship Scene (towards the end) demonstrate some of the most sophisticated and detailed choreography of the show. To watch the utter dedication of the performers engage with the space is to indulge in a rare form of pleasure. Every slight flick of the wrist, smooth arch of the back; the unhesitant straightening of a skirt and the exaggerated facial expression all culminate in an experience that is reflects the expertise and staggering skill of Lucinda Childs and her ensemble.
The music one couldn’t help imagine would form an ideal film score. Replete with exuberant riffs truncated by paranoid eruptions of text and syllables and yet never losing that sense of sacred music – one that has the power to take us to moments when a boy may toss paper planes, a woman perform a ‘diagonal dance’ to an increasingly quickening tempo and a man (or a mime) in a red shirt may all somehow be related in this cosmos where buildings, time pieces and model trains dwarf the human subjects as they play.
Einstein on the Beach is a meditation. One that both invites a sense of abandonment, an invitation to risk a lack of comprehension – this is not a political work. It is and can be alienating. And certainly, not your average night at the arts centre. But for all those reasons and more Wilson, Glass and Childs have created a monument, a tower in the landscape of avant-garde performance.
In a world where l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sakes) is often dismissed as a remnant the self-indulgent bourgeoisie Einstein on the Beach asks its audiences not to think again, but to feel again.