Live: Sonnets

Berliner Ensemble, Berlin12 April 2009Pairing the director Robert Wilson and the musician Rufus Wainwright in a theatrical production to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a courageous commission by the Berliner...

Berliner Ensemble, Berlin
12 April 2009

Pairing the director Robert Wilson and the musician Rufus Wainwright in a theatrical production to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a courageous commission by the Berliner Ensemble. Choosing to animate the extended family of the sonnets, Wilson establishes a fantastical Elizabethan collective of gender reversed actor-singers to bestow various perspectives on these archetypal accounts of love. From the three dark ladies and Shakespeare (and his younger self) to Georgette Dee – the contemporary cabaret drag queen who provides irreverent and sidestepping commentary between the scene changes – fourteen characters sing and declaim, mostly in German, twenty-four sonnets.

‘Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch.’

Imaginatively housed in the habitually eccentric vernacular of a Wilson production – large backdrops of single strident colours; puppet-like, stylised gestures; fastidious affects of lighting – the staging and direction often purposefully dispossessed the nuances of the sonnets, remolding them into springboards for Wilson’s outrageous, phantasmagorical scenes: a smashed car wrapped around a tree for the 10th sonnet or three giant gas pumps for the 23rd.

‘And simple truth miscalled simplicity.’

Whereas Wilson freely associates with the sonnets to explore his own distinctive imagery, the heart of the work belonged to Wainwright’s concise, musical contribution. Setting ten sonnets within simple song structures, it is Wainwright and Shakespeare who offer the strongest collaboration. Mostly contemplative in character, Wainwright favours simple musical devices (for example, a repeated descending arpeggio in the 29th sonnet, or ascending, imitative chords in the 43rd) to enhance, not distract from the texts. There is an eloquence to his settings of the 10th, 20th, 29th, 40th and 43rd sonnets in particular, each capturing an immediate sense of mood, be it desire, longing or anguish. Not all were so introspective, yet some settings seemed too consciously tailored to a defined musical style: hard rock, a Kurt Weill-esque chorus number, a fast Spanish dance.

Other musics, ranging from Dowland and Michel Legrand to incidental music evocatively composed by Bryan Senti, filled out the tapestry, but joining the musical dots, much like a plot, seemed to have been somewhat disregarded. Music and action appeared to be working in counterpoint, rarely approaching unison, leaving one to appreciate slices of music here and there, but never the whole.

‘What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?’

Divining partly to Wilson’s and Wainwright’s endeavour, the two-and-a-half hour feast bows graciously, if in a somewhat spectacular fashion, to the original sonnets, which are handsomely (and bilingually) presented in a booklet which accompanies the show.

Published on 1 June 2009

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