The Old Woman

Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney
Baryshnikov Productions, Change Performing Arts and The Watermill Centre
Palace Theatre, Manchester

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov Credit: Lucie Jansch

After their appearance at the last Manchester International Festival with The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, director Robert Wilson and Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe return to this year's MIF, this time with the great Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For this new show, the threesome—presumably with credited adapter Darryl Pinckney, although his name doesn't crop up in any of their descriptions of the creation process—have used the stories of Russian writer Daniil Kharms, who was born in St Petersburg in 1905 and died during the German siege of Leningrad in 1942. In the last decade of his life, he wrote children's stories, despite professing to hate children, to avoid the gaze of the Soviet authorities, who had criminalised avant garde arts.

Kharms's pieces take the term "short story" to the extreme, as many are no longer than a couple of paragraphs, making Chekhov's short stories look like Tolstoyan epics. Wilson has taken several of these short tales and created a scene around each, but these are not dramatisations in the normal sense. The text is fragmented and repeated over and over again by the two white-faced characters whose abstract movements nod towards traditional popular comedy but are more sinister.

Wilson says in the programme that he begins any show with the light, then the movement, and only later adding text and audio. This process results in a show that is beautiful to look at but often hard to watch. The design is always meticulous, exacting and impressive, with superb use of light to recolour objects, the backcloth and even the people or to create pin-sharp silhouettes. But the text is definitely playing second fiddle to the visual impact, and Kharms becomes completely subsumed into Wilson.

While Kharms was clearly reacting against any accepted forms of plot construction or narrative storytelling with sequences of events that range from the simple non sequitur to flights of surrealism, they are all rooted in the recognisable mundanity of everyday life, in homes, in the streets, buying a loaf of bread. There's nothing remotely down-to-earth about Wilson's staging, which puts abstract movements over an abstract design and repeats the text until it no longer has any meaning and the humour is lost. A Kharms story that could be read in under a minute could be stretched thinly over a fifteen- or twenty-minute scene.

Anyone who saw Wilson's Abramovic at the last MIF two years ago won't see anything new here. It has the same big, bold design with use of cutouts and strong colours applied through lighting. It has Willem Dafoe playing almost the same wild, Joker-esque (in a Batman sense) character in a totally committed and impressive way, joined by the superb Baryshnikov doing almost the same thing but sometimes in Russian.

It doesn't have the variety of the earlier piece brought by Antony Hegarty and various other musicians, or the presence of its subject on stage to make sense of the abstractions in relation to his / her life. This makes it rather like walking through a gallery exhibition in which all of the images have the same elements in a different order. In fact Wilson's work, in my view, would be more at home in a gallery than in a theatre, as a purely aesthetic experience struggles to hold the attention of an audience for an hour and three quarters. In a gallery you can move on to the next piece at any time; in a theatre, walking out before the end is a bold statement.

The reactions from the press night audience were mixed. There were the usual cheers you would expect from a first night audience of which perhaps half (at least in the stalls) were the production team and their friends and supporters. A few walked out, but not until quite near the end (including one man who spent almost the whole show looking at Twitter on his 'phone). An old man near to me walked out during the applause at the end, booing loudly—I think he thought he was in Cannes.

It's all very beautiful and technically brilliant, but after the first half hour I found it a bit of an endurance test. The production and technical team—associate set designer Annick Lavellée-Benny, lighting designer A J Weissbard, sound designer Marco Oliveri and Hal Willner who is billed simply as "music"—deserve most of the applause for their construction of Wilson's vision. It's difficult to see what adapter Darryl Pinckney's contribution has been as the script appears to be just translations of Kharms's stories repeated verbatim over and over again.

There is a send-up of performance art in an episode of the cult sitcom Spaced in which David Walliams stands on stage in bright costume and make-up striking poses, making noises and repeating things in different voices for hours. It may just be my ignorance of high art, but other than the production values and star billing I'm struggling to work out how this show is fundamentally different.

Reviewer: David Chadderton