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Einstein on the Beach review at Barbican London

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Philip Glass’ 1976 opera belatedly reaches the UK in this recreation by librettist, set designer and director Robert Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs, of their vast, 36-year-old piece of avant-garde music theatre.

Glass’ music has changed and developed since this major early work, with its relentlessly fundamentalist minimalism – a term he dislikes – consisting of seemingly endless, minutely and gradually altering patterned repetitions – another term he disapproves of. Length is a problem, not only in practical terms – you are allowed to leave and re-enter the auditorium during the 5-hour show, which plays without interval. But on the first night, technical problems delayed the start and gave us an unscheduled though far from unwelcome 10-minute mid-performance break. Perhaps only staunch devotees would be unwilling to accept that many individual scenes would be no less effective, and indeed all the better, for being shorter.

Einstein is a non-linear, non-narrative piece that holds itself at a distance from a subject that is obliquely referred to and often ignored. The result feels less like a unified work than a happy-go-lucky collection.

But there are highlights in the visual exhilaration of the two dance sequences, in which Glass’ music reaches a Dionysian energy, in the raucous tenor saxophone playing of Andrew Sterman in the Building scene, and in the sense of toying with the material and the audience that runs through much of the wordplay and mime – though they have the capacity to pall, too. In many ways it’s an evening of nostalgia, less the vindication of a modern classic than a retro revival of a period piece.

Production Information

Barbican, London, May 4-13

Composer
Philip Glass
Director
Robert Wilson
Producer
Pomegranate Arts Inc, Barbican
Cast
Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Antoine Silverman, Jasper Newell, Charles Williams
Running time
5hrs

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