The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

So to the main event – the life and death of Marina A at the Lowry, Manchester.

Having studied the work of Robert Wilson – and become somewhat obsessed by those early Glass/Wilson collaborations this was another #MiF11 show I was really looking forward too – but one that I was also approaching with a certain amount of apprehension. I’d already been left perplexed, confused and somewhat unnerved by other #MiF11 shows – was it about to happen again?

I needn’t have worried. Right from the haunting opening image – three corpses (reflecting the three places Marina wanted her funeral to take place in) beautifully presented in white death masks, guarded by hounds on a stage littered with red bones – I was hooked. At times (of course) I was also somewhat perplexed and confused but thats hardly the point. As the programme states Wilson ‘is primarily a painter who works in theatre’. He creates his dramas from a series of carefully and beautifully constructed images which as an audience member you are invited to take in at and pretty much let sweep over you.

This isn’t just a visual piece though – the image is also built up with an evocative score which combines the haunting, painful (when will I turn and cut the world?) sound of Anthony (of Anthony and the Johnsons) with the traditional Serbian sound of Svetlana Spajic. From listening to the way the sounds blended and reflected each other you would never have guessed they came from two different musical cultures separated by 1000s of miles.

There is a narrative here – the early life of Marina Abramovic told through a series of ‘stories’ with subtle references to her early work. The piece indicates the protagonist’s difficult relationship with her mother – portraying various family set pieces (the story of the washing machine, the story of mother and father) in grotesque, hypnotic but eerily beautiful caricature. Fascinatingly Marina Abromovic is asked to play both herself and her mother – a dual role which apparently had her in tears throughout the rehearsal period at the Lowry.

The narrative though is the least important part of Life and Death and unlike in The 8th you don’t feel as though your missing anything by not following it. What narrative there is is driven by a barnstorming performance by Willem Dafoe – playing a character somewhere between Mad Hatter and The Joker (though I never did quite get why his accent morphed from Serbian to American and back again).

This is a piece that requires patience. Unlike in Abramovic’s piece in 11 rooms (Luminosity) its Robert Wilson and not you that controls how long you look at any given image – and I have to say in the long first half I did find myself slipping into an art induced slumber (not sleep but not alert either!). The pieces undoubted beauty not enough to hold me through

All that said Life and Death haunts you well after the dreadful (under rehearsed) curtain call (quite how a perfectionist like Wilson let that chaos happen I do not know). It may not be the greatest piece of theatre Ive ever seen but I suspect many of the images (and especially the beautiful death scene) will stay with me for many years to come.

[all pictures and video courtesy of Manchester International Festival, source here]

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