Sybil: The Moment Has Gone / Waiting for the Sibyl
Concept and director William Kentridge, choral composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu, composer Kyle Shepherd
Over the last decade, we have not been in short supply of William Kentridge’s oeuvre in London, and I can’t get enough of it. It must be his Dadaist / Constructivist influences—I see Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Kasimir Malevich, Joan Miró, Paul Klee taking a line for a walk, and of course Alexander Calder’s mobiles and stabiles. Playful and melancholy, joyful and profound, satirical, comical, anarchic and deadly serious: add to that the knowledge that his parents were eminent anti-apartheid lawyers and activists and the picture becomes even clearer.
If you know William Kentridge’s work from Woyzeck on the Highveld (Barbican 2011), Ubu and the Truth Commission (Edinburgh Festival 2014) and his productions of Alban Berg’s Lulu (ENO 2016) and Shostakovich’s The Nose at New York’s Met Opera in 2010, his 2012/13 Tate Modern Tanks video installation show I am not me, the horse is not mine, referencing Russian modernism, his 2016/17 exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery Thick Time, and The Head and the Load at Tate Modern in 2018, you’ll see that tonight’s animated film and opera are a fusion of all the above. A performative collage of thoughts and ideas—all the arts in play…
There is more to come this autumn at the Royal Academy, a retrospective of a forty-year career. In the meantime, the Barbican has given his short double bill a very short run, whetting the appetite in anticipation.
Waiting for the Sibyl (2016–2019) came about at the invitation from Rome Opera to make a companion piece to Calder’s 1968 Work in Progress. But the Barbican production is in two parts. Before we get to Sibyl, there is a brilliant and very moving 22-minute film, The Moment Has Gone, which charts the making of City Deep, Kentridge’s latest charcoal black and white animated film. Some of its ideas reappear in Waiting for the Sibyl. It’s a merry-go-round of the creative process, incorporating his process and scenes with his doppelganger in his studio.
Quick sketches (an & becomes a hangman’s noose) flicker on printed pages, on encyclopaedias, cryptic phrases occur, aphorisms (“a fault to be discovered later”), a man in suit (is this himself as the white businessman) visits a museum of his works of art, but the world crumbles. He visits a mine in which an African is still hammering at the rock, but to me that hole looks very like a grave. Is he channelling the Sybil, fate itself? Is this a timely film, or is it purely chance, or the way of the world?
A grand piano and four singers in pastel boiler suits provide the accompaniment to this silent film, music, cool minimalist jazz, composed by “progressive pianist” Kyle Shepherd (live on piano), and conceived with Nhlanhla Mahlangu, with beautiful polyphonic barber-shop harmony performed in English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Ndebele—are they doing throat singing, too?
Prepped by the film, after an interval comes the 42-minute chamber opera, Waiting for the Sibyl. Front screens with changing images punctuate the scenes and allow for snappy scene changes. A megaphone stands to one side, a film is in constant play behind the performers, light changes from dusky to dark, and the Sibyl stands centre stage on a platform, writhing in dance and prophesy, her silhouette large on the painted backdrop. Lots of dark silhouettes, doubts and shadows of doubts…
The Cumaean Sibyl (of Virgil’s Aenied), for it is she, is dressed in a long bronze gown with white underskirt (influenced by Castagno’s portrait in the Uffizi I’m guessing); the others are in zany Dada-ish costumes. The set is littered with chairs (absurdist theatre?), some of which collapse. Will the chair a man tries to sit on collapse underneath him? This is fate. You take your chances.
The Cumaean Sibyl wrote your fate on oak leaves (Kentridge paints black ink trees on leaves of books, some take on Rorschach test shapes), but when you came to collect yours at the mouth of her cave the wind would scatter them. You have a fate predicted, but which one… That is our human condition.
What we see on stage is the manic living, the picking up of scattered leaves, their gleaning, books ripped up, large library steps—the set is positively Gogolian, bureaucracy gone mad. But the singing could send you to heaven. The score is by Shepherd, the libretto written on projected pages of books—I can barely keep up with the reading of it there is so much visual stimulus.
I do need to see it again. “I have forgotten the message, the moment has gone”; “whichever page you open there you are”; “a prisoner in the book”; “fresh graves are everywhere”; “no place will resist destruction”; “where shall we put our hope”. Chillingly prophetic… The people chatter on and on…
The libretto was gathered from different books, Kentridge explains in his notes, “from proverbs, from phrases I’ve found in old notebooks of my own, lines of poets from Finland, Israel, South Africa, North Africa, many places in South America and around the world […] but which in some way address the question: ‘To what end?'”
The cast of nine singers and dancers, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Xolisile Bongwana, Thulani Chauke, Teresa Phuti Mojela, Thandazile ‘Sonia’ Radebe, Ayanda Nhlangothi, Zandile Hlatshwayo, Siphiwe Nkabinde, and S’busiso Shozi, are fabulous, their sound digs deep into one’s soul, the non-stop action frequently frenzied.
And the creative team, Žana Marović editing / compositing, Greta Goiris costume design, Sabine Theunissen set design, Urs Schönebaum lighting design, Gavan Eckhart sound engineering, Duško Marović cinematography, Kim Gunning video orchestration, are exceptional. Sybil was made “before the pandemic, before the war in Ukraine. But it does feel more urgent now, with its theme, uncertainty, the lingua franca of today” (William Kentridge).
Everything is fragmentary. Chaos waits around the corner. I think it’s here. Artists try to make sense of it, or maybe they muddy the waters... I’m smiling but my heart is weeping. The megaphone speaks—is this the future, will the algorithm take over? The dancers become robots.
Again, Kentridge takes me back to the early twentieth century when many of these futurist questions were being posed in art and literature. The run is sold out. The audience rises as one in a prolonged standing ovation. Kentridge and his team take a lengthy curtain call.
Reviewer: Vera Liber