The oddest moment was when the spectators picked up their seat cushions and hurled them at the stage – woe betide anyone who failed to duck. Was this a gesture of approval or rage? Perhaps it was just relief that the show was finally over.
The opening night at Lyon’s multi-arts Nuits de Fourvière festival had felt interminable, thanks to the slow-motion gesticulation in Robert Wilson’s staging. But besides the tedium, there was an element of surprise. Gone was the abstraction we have come to expect from the experimental American director. In its place was a cuddly piece of musical theatre, masquerading as opera.
But then the subject matter lends itself to sentimentality. First seen in New Jersey last year, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter tells the true story of a black plantation worker in Virginia who taught herself to paint in her fifties, eventually achieving renown as an artist. For Wilson it holds personal significance: he met Hunter in his childhood, and still collects her paintings. Working with a text by Jacqueline Woodson and a score by Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon, he has framed the biography within a mere 90-minute time span, impressive considering that Hunter lived until 101. But the result feels more like a thumbnail image than a fully fledged portrait. The music – a soup of folk, gospel and Southern blues – is catchy but oblivious to the nuances of character or motivation. As for the text, at times it’s unintelligible, at others, cloying. At worst, it’s patronising, climaxing with loud repetitions of “Clementine Hunter was a self-taught artist” – lest we had missed that point.
And Wilson still manages to mark his territory. Cue freeze-framed silhouettes, long silences and dummy-like characters who inch, snail-paced, across a near-empty stage. Why Wilson still hasn’t started to bore himself is a mystery. His brand of experimentation has a certain chic, but it bleaches the cast of individuality and warmth.
Not that they don’t put up a struggle. Carla Duren tackles the title role with zest, bringing a gravelly edge to the blues tones. She’s fortified by a gifted nine-strong chorus who bestow on Zinnias its one intoxicating element: the dance scenes. The strangest inclusion is actress Sheryl Sutton, familiar from Wilson’s early works. Billed as the “Angel”, she spends the whole show either sitting silently in a corner or floating along the peripheries of scenes – a haunting addition to this otherwise saccharine confection.