“The Old Woman” directed by robert wilson – by sophie joy wright

Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,

The Old Woman is a sold-out production currently showing at Paris’ Theatre de la Ville, and last Saturday, Professor Margery Arent Safir led a conversation between the play’s director, Robert Wilson, and its two actors Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I was fortunate to attend this incredibly interesting event presented by The Arts Arena, and well as the play itself the same weekend.


Adapted by Darryl Pinckney from Russian writer, Daniil Kharms, The Old Woman is completely absurd and completely perfect for Bob Wilson. This, combined with the theatricality that’s clearly embedded in every muscle of Mikhail Baryshnikov, with the acting splendor of Willem Dafoe, means this play has been incredibly well-received, and rightly so, despite Bob Wilson himself seeing this reception as “very curious”.

The play, as I said, is completely absurdist theatre. The charming, then fascinating, then torturous dialogue is incessantly repetitive and only delivers this decent into senselessness, sans plot-relief, if you will. When Professor Margery Arent Safir asked Wilson what the play is about, he replied, “It’s something you experience. Something you freely associate with. You can’t attach an idea to it. Like what the caterpillar said to Alice in Alice in Wonderland – ‘anything you can think of is true’”. This response is of course about as intangible as the production itself.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times, wrote “you start to wonder if you are stuck in some purgatory of a music hall, where the show never ends, and the punch line never arrives.”

In The Old Woman, Dafoe and Baryshnikov are dressed in subtly ill-fitting suits, and wear white-face and grey wigs, each with a slicked-wave of perpendicular hair that amusingly bounces around with the actors’ completely exaggerated and highly choreographed movements. Despite the fame of these two actors, there comes a point in the play when it’s too difficult to tell them apart, and it doesn’t matter anyway – they play 30-40 characters, each of which aren’t really characters but non-spontaneous voices telling a non-sentence of a non-story, over and over again, accompanied by this bizarre robotic movement that mirrors the repetition of the dialogue.

This is characteristic of what has come to be known as Wilson’s style.

"I don’t like naturalistic theatre. I hate it."

"To be on stage; it’s artificial. The stage is special and it has its own world."

Dafoe said that in his performance, he feels “like a thing […] and this is freeing”; a certain freedom that he described as one you can only find when performing theatre. Wilson clarified that “the more mechanical you are, the freer you are; the first time you ride a bicycle it’s awkward, but eventually you don’t have to think about it.” This way of thinking is quite interesting, and Willem said he was never told what to think by Wilson. But quite honestly, I don’t see any room in this play for the actors to think anyway. Baryshnikov explained how “working with choreographers, they trust a bit more. Myself and my body can instinctively understand what a choreographer needs.” But Bary;shnikov's experience with this specific production “has been the most complex rehearsal process I’ve been involved in my life. […] You know those big fishing hooks used to catch not fish but sharks, well Bob gently asks you to swallow that big hook.”

The precision of the actors on stage is astounding, and I don’t mean to detract from this; it’s brilliant. But the artificiality and exactitude at times felt like more restrictive than freeing.

A part of this constraint is to do with the precision of the lighting. This is a truly beautiful aspect of this production. Many directors consider lighting as necessary as Wilson does, but there are no others who use it in such an obvious, autonomous way. Lighting is in fact how Wilson begins his work, as “light creates the space. The light is like a participant, an actor”. You cannot not notice the green spotlights, the graduated white-to-blue backdrops, and the silhouettes and shadows meticulously created but his lighting.


When you leave the theatre, you simply cannot not speak about what you have just witnessed, and for this reason I certainly consider it a successful play. But once you isolate the aesthetics of the production and the performance-value, what are you left with? Brantley said that whilst the play is “lovely to look at”, it also “has the feeling of an eternal fugue, in which variations on a theme are circular and endless.”

So was I moved at all by the production? No. Is this the point? Probably.


Theatre de la Ville: http://www.theatredelaville-paris.com/

The Arts Arena : http://www.artsarena.org/

Ben Brantley’s article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/theater/reviews/the-old-woman-stars-dafoe-and-baryshnikov.html?_r=0

Robert Wilson: http://robertwilson.com/


Happy Friday,

Sophie Joy

Sophie Joy Wright