The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
Robert Wilson, Marina Abramovic, Antony, Willem Dafoe
Manchester International Festival
The Lowry, Salford
It would not really be appropriate to tell the life story of someone who calls herself the "grandmother of performance art" as a straightforward, naturalistic narrative, but through the visually-stunning but obscure imagery of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic there is, unmistakably, a biographical portrait of this extraordinary artist.
Internationally-renowned theatre and opera director Robert Wilson takes the helm of a creative team that includes Hollywood star Willem Dafoe, frontman of the band Antony and the Johnsons Antony Hegarty and Abramovic herself, and all but Wilson perform onstage. It is a biographical piece that examines Abramovic's life from growing up in the first house in Belgrade with a washing machine (her grandmother took the clothes out and washed them by hand anyway) through her difficult relationship with her mother, her love life and, of course, her art.
Abramovic's art centres on her own body, often pushed to physical and emotional extremes or having pain or disfigurement inflicted upon it, and she also stars in her own biography, including giving a rather unflattering portrait of her own mother. The show is a series of long set pieces, each of which could be a performance installation piece by itself, that use lots of very slow movements of people across the stage, lengthy repetition of movements and surreal juxtaposition of visual elements to produce beautiful, evolving visual images that do not have an immediately obvious meaning in isolation.
The link is Dafoe's white-faced, orange-haired character who explodes out of the orchestra pit at the beginning sitting in an office in which everything is covered with newspaper. Looking—and behaving—rather like a Batman villain, he narrates and provides a vital link between the abstract visual images and Abramovic's biography. Even though this isn't straightforward storytelling and is often jumbled up chronologically, it does bring the whole piece together.
Antony's musical direction has brought together some of his own songs, specially-written for the show, with music from classical composer William Basinski, traditional Serbian singers the Svetlana Spajic Group and electronic music duo Matmos, which all blends together very well. Dafoe gives a very impressive performance that is totally committed to the style of the whole piece but is very individual and occasionally humorous. The other performers are choreographed to the last gesture and facial expression, which they all execute perfectly.
It is interesting to compare this to Dr Dee, another major event at this year's MIF, which also uses set pieces of abstract imagery to tell a biographical tale. Interestingly, while this piece is obviously more towards the avant-garde than Rufus Norris's production, it has a clearer narrative structure and the set pieces seem to be carefully designed to belong narratively and stylistically to a well-conceived whole rather than being wilfully obscure, derivative or randomly assembled, which is how some parts of Dr Dee come across.
As a whole, it is certainly not for everyone in its bridging of the divide between theatre and performance art, but it is fascinating to watch, beautiful to look at, extremely impressive in the detail of its construction and certainly worth a look for the more adventurous and open-minded theatregoer who is prepared to be a little bewildered at times.
Reviewer: David Chadderton