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Hailing 'slowness & silence'

IT DOES not often occur that one man comes before a sold-out Slovak National Theatre (SND) in Bratislava and holds the audience’s attention for nearly three hours. But Robert Wilson is not your average entertainer or theatre-maker. In fact, finding the right words to describe him can be difficult, which is perhaps what brought so many people to this event, called ‘1. Have You Been There? 2. No, This Is the First Time.’

Robert Wilson held a lecture in SND in Bratislava. (Source: Courtesy of Pavleye Art and Culture)

IT DOES not often occur that one man comes before a sold-out Slovak National Theatre (SND) in Bratislava and holds the audience’s attention for nearly three hours. But Robert Wilson is not your average entertainer or theatre-maker. In fact, finding the right words to describe him can be difficult, which is perhaps what brought so many people to this event, called ‘1. Have You Been There? 2. No, This Is the First Time.’

Wilson is not unknown to the Slovak public: his Videoportraits exhibition, featuring moving portraits of celebrities, ordinary people and animals, was presented in the Slovak National Gallery (SNG) at the beginning of this year. In an effort to explore the phenomenon of “Bob Wilson” more deeply, the SNG screened a two-hour documentary on the artist during the exhibition. The film answered questions rai-sed by visitors about the ra-ther static and abstract vi-deos (for example, why does the black panther grumble hypnotically in English?).

The lecture offered a more telling answer: there is, in fact, no answer, or there are a million answers, for that matter. Wilson admitted that once you choose the single “right” answer or meaning, you might lose all the others, adding that he preferred to keep all of them open. He stressed that art is more about asking questions than answering them.

True to this motto, he came onstage and remained quiet and motionless for several minutes, as if testing the audience and preparing them for a confession. Wilson admitted that a typical trait of him and his work is slowness, which serves as an advantage over the superficial hastiness of modern life and the flood of stimuli from TV and modern media.

The Texas-born artist quickly fled the limiting small-town atmosphere for New York, where he studied architecture (a splendid basis for the stage decorating profession) and discovered thea-tre and dance, both classical and modern. He broke all the rules of classical theatre. Once fighting the bastions of Broadway with his own aesthetics and philosophy, he later managed to conquer them and become a legend in his own right.

Wilson’s perception of theatre is rather abstract, visual and formalistic, emphasising the role of stage sets and lights (he said that in the Einstein on the Beach opera, a ray of light played a crucial role, being the sole “character” of one act that lasted 16 minutes) but, he added, once having rehearsed the precise physical expression of a play, he leaves “the filling” and the expression of emotion to the performers.

Many of his works, especially those which were staged just once, are several hours long; he even directed a piece lasting an entire week. However, the play 1914 that is premiering now in Prague’s National Theatre and is to be staged at the SND by the end of October, is of normal theatrical length.
The piece, commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, is based on Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk and Karl Kraus’ play The Last Days of Mankind: A Tragedy in Five Acts. It is a collaboration of the Prague-based National Theatre, Budapest-based Víg-színház and the SND. 1914 will be staged in Bratislava between October 28 and 30, and those who liked his lecture can see his fundamentals applied in practice.

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