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Post-Modernism and the Multi-Media Sensibility: Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine and the Art of Robert Wilson NICHOLAS ZURBRUGG Robert Wilson's adaption - or transmutation - of the East German playwright Heiner Miiller's Hamletmachine typifies both the relatively staid, monodimensional quality ofMiiller's Post-Modernity, and the more dynamic, multi-media vision ofits producer. Hamletmachine's London season opened at the Almeida Theatre; a theatre which could well have been renamed the "All-Media" for this occasion. Mixing almost every theatrical and extra-theatrical trick in the Post-Modem book, it combined classical declamation, parodic classical declamation, autistic anti-declamation, colloquial declamation, cry, whisper, laugh, whimper, tape-recorded screech and mutter, tape-recorded noise, mime, acrobatics, sculptural immobility, videoesque choreography, virtuoso lighting, projected slide-imagery, black and white and coloured film-imagery, digitally deconstructed video-image, and an array of musical sound-tracks ranging from the nostalgic tango accompanying the cast's final bow, to the echoing tones of a piano piece by Lieber and Stoller (composers of Elvis Presley's Hound Dog). Wilson's comments to the London press regarding this "most mature and powerful" of his productions both pleased and teased. I On the one hand, Wilson insisted all his work is "political", and that "the words are important" in Miiller's play! On the other hand, he confessed: "I feel something's missing when everything's explained.'" Defending his reluctance to treat Miiller's text too closely, Wilson adds: "When we try to interpret the text, the meanings of the words are narrowed and so I try not to interpret them.,,4 Not surprisingly, Wilson equates his theatre with an art of "variations and themes," and with the attempt "to build an agreed language with the audience and then : .. destroy it in order to rebuild.'" As he explains; I try to teU my actors not to try to understand what they're doing. They can have 440 NICHOLAS ZURBRUGG understandings and ideas about their parts. but ifthey try and fix a single understanding it will be adistortion.6 To some extent, one is familiar with this kind of unholy alliance between systematically constructed or deconstructed form and exasperatingly ambiguous content. Beckett, for example, tends to argue that it is "the shape" that matters in his work, while concurrently counterpointing such "shape" with the hauntingly imprecise theatrical images, phrases or themes that he has associated with the mysterious capacity of his plays to "claw."7In this respect, Beckett's vision emerges between the lines ofdramatic structure, evading form and evincing "mess."· Working rather differently with the orderly and the apparently disorderly, John Cage interweaves precision and imprecision, deriving "rules" from chance procedures, and composing scores permitting unscored, improvised performance. Unlike Beckett, Cage evades conventional fann in order to reveal the advantages of "mess,"or what he associates with "8 harmony to which many are unaccustomed.,,9 Rather than attempting to convey personal angst - as Beckett does - by exhibiting the tension between symmetrical form and unspeakable theme, Cage attempts to evoke the impersonal unity interlinking his incongruous materials, proposing that "all things, sounds, stories (and, by extension, beings), are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not over-simplified by an idea of relationship in one person's mind."10 Wilson's aesthetic seems to hover somewhere between Beckett's and Cage's antithetical explorations of form, ambiguity, chance, and rule. As Janny Donker remarks, Wilson has much in common with both Beckett and Cage in so far as "he refrains from handing his players any definite 'message' to be conveyed by their actions on stage."" Like Cage's music, Wilson's theatre also appears concerned with modes of implicit harmony and cohesion interlinking divergent materials, and like Beckett's productions of his plays, Wilson's orchestrations of sound, word, image, gesture, and,light demand a certain degree of impeccable timing and delivery. More than any other form of theatre, perhaps. Bob Wilson's work depends for its effect on accuracy of execution. If the space slackens, if movement betrays uncertainty, if an actor's voice lacks power, if the lights do not work exactly on schedule, if props or backdrops do not behave as...


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pp. 439-453
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