The emperor has no clothes in the Toronto theatre premiere of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic
I must preface this review by saying that I consider myself to be fairly “in love” with performance artist Marina Abramovic. I also find actor Willem Dafoe dynamic, and while I’ve never seen any of director Robert Wilson’s work, I know he’s collaborated with a number of my favorite artists, and is highly regarded by my peers.
I expected an evening of mystique and intrigue, of aesthetic and intellectual confrontation, and I expected to enjoy myself immensely. It took me most of the night to admit this last part wasn’t happening.
I did not enjoy this play. This seems sacrilegious to say – this play has seen a lot of success, is one even allowed not to like it? Should “liking it” be the point? I’m left with no profound feelings other than a pronounced second-guessing. I must have missed something.
I think that is precisely the issue. I missed something – many things – from my vantage point some distance from the stage. My only conviction leaving this piece is a reaffirmation of my dislike of commercial theatre.
I can half imagine what this piece would have been like on a smaller stage in a smaller venue that did not maximize capacity. Perhaps being immersed in this strange world on a small scale would have felt entirely different.
But as it was, I felt very remote, unengaged. The world of this play unfolded like a glacial spectacle. I found very little to connect to. It was an exercise in slowly watching something happen eight times in succession and then watching that thing be un-done eight times in succession.
I was looking for the deep, penetrating, and intimate human connection Abramovic explored in her recent MOMA performance, The Artist is Present, in which participants were seated in front of her to engage in continuous eye contact, often until the participant cried.
But I felt nothing. Perhaps you will, however. Wilson’s stage is clean, iconic; he uses light to great visual effect. Antony’s voice is undeniably haunting. Abramovic’s presence is always powerful. Dafoe is strange and quirky in all the ways you expect.
This is a theatre of the eye. Imagine a painting come to life. What kind of painting? My art history is bad. Something involving a lot of bright colours, a very specific placement of objects, and an unrelenting pantomimic repetition.
It simply wasn’t to my taste. This doesn’t really matter so much – its success and renown suggest that it is to the taste of many others. I left feeling confused and bothered, wondering if I was the only one who noticed the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.