In the course of writing the preview of Manchester International Festival's production of The Old Woman for Creative Tourist, I was genuinely baffled about how they’d adapt Daniil Kharms’ text, an absurdist fable where much of the action happens inside the paranoid narrator’s head (which you can read online here). But playwright Darryl Pinckney cleverly appropriated bits from his other, similarly surreal writings, which gave the production some more source material to play with. Uber-director Robert Wilson used this to create a kaleidoscopic sequence of short sketches and tableaux, expertly performed by two world-class professionals. Watching it was a joyful experience – and an exhausting one. This kind of theatre-of-the-abstract demands a lot from its audience, and by the end of 90 minutes I was ready for a break.
Dafoe and Baryshnikov were an inspired combination, utterly different actors but positive equals in their craft. Baryshnikov was a melancholy presence who moved about the stage with dazzling grace. Dafoe was a whirlwind – a demon gurning and glowering, then a daffy goof, then a maudlin Pierrot – with that blazing charisma that means you can’t take your eyes off him. The show moved us quickly across a variety of emotional landscapes, traversing jazzy slapstick, existential crises, tenderness, horror, and even straw hat vaudeville with the pair playing off each other like an absurdist Morecambe and Wise. But permeating the whole thing was that particularly Russian feeling – a blend of folk wisdom and gallows humour developed over centuries of hard labour, oppression, vodka and long winters.
The topsy-turvy minimalist set was continually subjected to split second changes in lighting, timed to coincide with movements from the actors and sharp reports that sounded intermittently throughout the action, creating a jittery atmosphere like a giant clock ticking at irregular times. This production needed to be utterly precise to work, and with this crack team of course it was – but don’t try this at home, kids. The Old Woman is the theatre equivalent of jumping 13 Mack trucks on a motorcycle, and every bit as exhilarating to watch.
Image courtesy Manchester International Festival