Einstein on the Beach is a mammoth undertaking and is (almost) completely worth it.
We’re very lucky here in Gwangju. Einstein on the Beach, a collaborative work by legendary composer Philip Glass and avant-garde theatre icon Robert Wilson, finishes its 3 and a half year tour here in our humble city. The esteemed work is a complex and unconventional journey that will push your mental stamina to the limit.
Where do you even start with a show like this. At just short of 5 hours long (without interval) this intricate display of experimental theatre is easily one of the more challenging artistic spectacles you’re likely to see in your lifetime. Despite its length it’s still loaded with ideas as well as great performances and a striking score.
In case you can’t tell, Einstein at the beach is far from conventional. It has no real “plot” to speak of except for an impressionistic retelling of the birth of the hydrogen bomb. Instead, the opera takes a formalistic approach bombarding the audience’s intellect with high-concept theatre. It relies on symbolism and expressionistic qualities to communicate themes and ideas.
This approach was successful, culminating in an almost abstract scene towards the end of the show. In it, a brightly lit rectangle rotated slowly to its side and was lifted off the completely dark and abandoned stage. While this might sound like a step too far for some people, it was actually one of the highlights of the night largely due to the powerful vocals of a lone soprano at the bottom of the stage.
The set design was inspired. The opening act in particular stood out with its mixing of art deco influences draped in harsh, industrial colors and trimmed by Dan Flavin-esque light strips. This contrasted well with the minimal art direction of the dance scenes. In these, the lighting shifted with impressive subtlety.
The score is, as you would expect from Glass, incredible with the seemingly patternless music hurling time sequences and arrangements at you at a strong pace.
The performances were flawless without exception. The breathtaking violin work of Einstein (who actually kind of looked more like Beetlejuice) and the soprano solo performance in the penultimate-ish scene were particular highlights.
The movement of the dancers was fluid and looked free flowing. Yet the precision required for these heavily choreographed sequences meant that it was anything but. This strange contradiction is made even more impressive when you consider the ever-shifting formlessness of the score.
I’d go so far as to say that I didn’t dislike a thing about this play. Except for one.
Understandably, it might seem crass to criticise a production for something as banal as its length but at just short of 5 hours I feel there’s a certain artistic justification here that goes beyond “short attention span”. Every scene in this was both brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed yet every scene also felt like it would benefit from being cut much shorter.
It’s not that I don’t understand the power that can be added to something by stretching it much further than expected. I also appreciate that the point of this play was not to appease its audience with frequent scene changes and fast-paced action. But often things can benefit artistically from being shorter. Something that may appear emotionally powerful or creatively interesting one minute may seem ordinary or even tedious if its still on stage 40 minutes later. Since this idea of pushing the length of things was used in every single section the result is that the whole thing feels stretched and even a little bloated.
Despite the difficulty of getting all the way through this I would completely recommend it. If nothing else, it’s pretty rare for Gwangju to be selected to host an internationally recognised cultural tour-stop over Seoul and for that reason alone it deserves support. On top of that though, it’s an impressive rendition of a completely groundbreaking visual and audio spectacle that might not be seen again for some time. Yes, it’s challenging, but the best things in life usually are.