The Old Woman, Palace Theatre, Manchester International Festival – review

The work of Daniil Kharms, the Russian absurdist storyteller, is rarely performed on stage. His grotesque surrealism, imbued with death and decomposition, makes considerable demands on the audience. There is no narrative thread to help us, and moments of light relief are tinged with Beckett-like bitterness.

The Old Woman, written in 1939 amid a wave of arrests and executions by the Soviet secret police, is a mixture of prose poem and fragments of Kharms’s later writing, centring loosely on the death and disposal of an old woman who “holds a clock that has no hands”. Its rhythms are frenetic, its plot nonsensical. There were not a few, on its opening night at the Manchester International Festival, who left their seats early.

But Robert Wilson’s lucid production, bringing together Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, is a revelation. Not for the first time, Wilson’s set design and lighting steal the show. Floating furniture and steles of white light make a rigorous counterpoint to the babbling non-sequiturs played out before them. The more deranged the performers, the more precise and austere their backdrop. This is, above all, an evocation of Stalinist tyranny, another theatre of the absurd.

Baryshnikov and Dafoe, twin clowns with Joker-style white make-up and corkscrew hair, are superb, managing to wring the pathos out of each of their bizarre encounters. Baryshnikov frequently switches to the original Russian, and is unostentatious in his mastery of his physique. Dafoe is all animation, funny voices, dangling limbs.

The beauty on stage – soft-hued primary colours and geometrical grids suffused in ever-changing washes of light – seems to mock the increasingly manic behaviour of the two performers. Their vulnerability and mutual reliance becomes touching. Through some mysterious alchemical reaction, we care about what happens to them, no matter that their every utterance lies outside the field of logic.

We leave the theatre like awestruck victims of a magic trick, asking ourselves: how did they do that?

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