As an artist, Robert Wilson possesses an extraordinary range. He’s created some theater shows entirely out of his own head (Deafman Glance), others in collaboration with contemporary composers (Einstein on the Beach, with Philip Glass), directed many operas, and mounted installations in some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries.
Credited with bringing a sense of space and time to the previously largely social and speech-rooted art of Western theater, he can best be seen as a visual artist who has chosen to work on stages rather than on canvas. He has also brought together Eastern and Western theatrical traditions in ways previously unimagined, creating stage shows that are at times mystical and even visionary.
In this context his debut in Taiwan, in many ways a repository of the most ancient Chinese artistic traditions, couldn’t be more important.
I first asked Robert Wilson what kind of a production Orlando would be.
“Orlando is a true collaboration in that it incorporates a Western vocabulary of movement and images, based on Virginia Woolf’s text of Orlando and deriving from my background as an architect, from my life in the theater, and from my work as a visual artist.
“This work is counter-pointed and complemented by the classically trained Beijing opera star Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), which definitely brings an ancient sense of Chinese culture to the work — a culture where movement, language, the difference between spoken and sung words, are all very different from what I’ve inherited from my Western roots.
“I see this work as being one whole made of two opposites — the way you have two hands but one body, two sides of the brain, but one mind.
“This new Taipei production is based on earlier ones I did in Paris with Isabelle Huppert and in England with Miranda Richardson. The text and music are different, however, as well as the movement, because they are adapted to the talents of the great Wei Hai-min.
“As for the music, it will use traditional Chinese instruments and at times very profound contemporary electronic sounds.”
I mentioned to Wilson that critics had seen the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism on some of his theater work. How did he see the difference between Japanese and Chinese culture?
“The Chinese are about 2,4,8,12,16, the Japanese about 3,5,7,11 and 15,” he replied. “The Japanese are about asymmetry, the Chinese about symmetry. This, at least, is one way they’re different. Look at a Chinese garden and a Japanese one, and you’ll see the difference.”
I next made the point that, though love was central to Virginia Woolf’s original book, she seemed herself in some ways a rather a cold, sex-less figure, and some of this is apparent in the novel. What was Wilson’s experience of her writing?
“I think Virginia Woolf is a formal writer, and her text is therefore formal as well. She is, after all, writing both about herself and about 400 years of the history of England. It is a playful, fantasy text. Yet as a formal writer she views events to some extent from a distance.”
I then suggested that the East is today generally seen as the bearer of ancient traditions, often androgynous like the character Orlando, that have been battered by the influence of the West, but are still present. These traditions are both sensual and spiritual. Did Wilson view the Orient in a similar way?