The Life And Death of Marina Abramovic review by Byony Bond
The curtain is already up when you enter the theatre for Robert Wilson’s The Life And Death of Marina Abramovic, and it appears that you’ve arrived at the end. Three masked Marina Abramovics lie in state, surrounded by scattered red bones and scavenging dogs, they lie unmoving as people take their seats. Slowly a low musical drone rises and lights close in on the Marinas’ stark white faces, before blinking out to silence and blackness.
The Life And Death’ is Abramovic’s life story told in a series of richly realised visual tableaux vivants, narrated by a bone-white and shock-haired Willem Dafoe. Focussing on her life rather than her work, the scenes have titles like ‘The Story of the Washing Machine’ or ‘The Story of the Big Nose’. The sets are plain but the characters are complex and vivid. Genders are fluid, multiple Marinas take to the stage and Abramovic plays her own mother, resplendent in black floor-length dress and upswept hair, accompanied at every step by theatrical echo.
Scenes whirl quickly past. Numerous young Marinas in luminous green pyjamas pull lines of tiny beds behind them, to jump on them and smash them to bits. Abramovic, seated in a hospital bed, holds a perfect miniature puppet of herself. Defoe undresses and dresses, reciting circular and frenetic accounts of Abramovic’s wish to reshape her nose by attempting to break it, of her mother waking her up in the middle of the night to straighten her bed, and of parents who keep guns under their pillows. Hallucinatory and fast-paced, the scenes are interspersed with hypnotic Serbain songs in revised ancient forms, and with solos by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), his voice clear and mesmerising.
Moving, for the most part chronologically, the scenes pass through Abramovic’s meeting with her partner and long-term collaborator Ulay, and their falling in and out of love; Dafoe - ‘1988 she stops liking his smell’. Throughout, her work is only ever lightly touched upon; footage of Nude with Skeleton is projected briefly onto the stage curtain and Dafoe tells the story of the wolf-rat - loosely taken from Abramovic’s 1997 Venice Biennale show, Balkan Baroque. There’s even an occasional soft jab. Defoe and Abramovic sit facing each other on stage, dressed in serge green uniforms, Abramovic describes her parting with Ulay - ‘we walked 2,000 miles to say goodbye’ to which Defoe retorts - ‘that’s a bit extreme isn’t it’‘
Abramovic apparently began the process of making The Life and Death’ by laying out index cards describing elements of her biography on a table, and the experience of the finished work is much like picking up one memory after another. Reoccurring characters float through scenes; a woman in a brilliant blue satin ball gown, a man with a snake draped around his shoulders and a woman dressed as an old man with flowing beard. All shuffle or glide across the stage like the peculiar moments and faces that remain inexplicably vivid throughout your life.
Abramovic described her role as being ‘material, nothing more’ and states that it was Robert Wilson who chose to focus on her life rather than her work. To many this choice has felt like a missed opportunity. In reality however, the focus on her biography and relationships through tangential stories and dreamlike visions feels more appropriate than theatricalising seminal performances from Abramovic’s past. The Life and Death’ is not an Abramovic performance, nor is it an analysis of her work, it is theatre. But it’s theatre that takes a vivid journey through the influences and memories of one today’s great artists and does so with memorable flamboyance.