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The Old Woman (MIF)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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From esoteric operas to rarefied art shows, Manchester International Festival has never been shy at tackling high culture.

So it's no surprise that one of the opening shows of this year's festival is an avant-garde stage adaptation of The Old Woman, an absurdist novella by obscure Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

Written during the encroaching totalitarianism of post-revolutionary Russia, The Old Woman is a darkly cynical and comic tale of a struggling writer who has to cope with a strange old woman who dies in his flat. It's brought here to the stage by the trifecta of talent of director Robert Wilson and performers Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Wilson and Dafoe return from working together on the 2011 festival performance of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović and Baryshnikov will be familiar, according to your cultural leanings, as either premier ballet star or the art dealer who tried to whisk Carrie off to Paris in Sex and the City.

Slapped up like a pair of nightmarish mimes, Dafoe and Baryshnikov play the protagonist, and all the other parts, with the consummate ease of assured professionals. Their physicality moves from liquid muscularity to precise clownishness with effortless skill and they manage to fill the mostly bare stage with the scale of their performance. They're aided by the smooth precision of the lighting and sound which take the action from a flat to bakery to the nightmarish interior of the writer's imagination.

Writer Darryl Pinckney's adapted text loops and repeats and repeat, layering meaning on unmeaning on meaning. It's hypnotic but Wilson doesn't make it for the audience and for those not familiar with the original text the effect could probably be disjointed, with the narrative tricky to follow.

There are other criticisms. From Bulgakov to Kafka the heart of Iron Curtain absurdism is the close connection of the quotidian and the extraordinary. In this heightened performance this juxtaposition is lost. Also at times, due to the intensity of the movement, the clarity of script was muddled.

But these are small niggles. As a testament to the aims of the festival, bringing world class talent to the Manchester stage, this performance is hard to fault.

- James Stanley