Review: The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

by Lynn on June 16, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

 At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto. Concept, Direction and Design by Robert Wilson. Co-creator, Marina Abramovic. Co-director, Ann-Christin Rommen, Musical director, composer and lyricist by Antony. Costumes by Jacques Reynaud, Lighting by A.J. Weissbard, Video designer, Tomasz Jeziorski. Starring: Marina Abramovic, Antony, Willem Defoe, Dragana Tomic.

Part of the Luminato Festival. June 15, 16, 17.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic has been described as ‘an experimental opera’ and recounts the life of renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic, from her early troubled days in Belgrade, (former Yugoslavia, now Serbia) through her discovery of performance art, to her thorny love-life that was attached to her art, to her ascension to the top of her game. Perhaps her most ambitious piece was in 2010  “The Artist is Present”, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in which she sat in a chair, silent for 716.5 hours in which various people sat opposite her each looking at the other for a minute.

For The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic the audience is led into the theatre and taken to their seats by an usher who talks in hushed sounds, perhaps out of respect for the three ‘bodies’ on stage. Three women in black velvet gowns are laid out on black raised platforms, each head resting on a raised block. Two of the women wear a white mask that suggests Marina Abramovic, exaggerated make-up, red lipstick. The last woman wears a white mask that looks a bit different than the other two, suggesting this is a different person—her mother perhaps.   Each wears white gloves and each has her hands folded on her diaphragm. They are all breathing but the woman in the middle is breathing in a manner that is quick but subtle. I figure this is the real Marina. There is a constant low humming sound.

Three large dogs come out from the wings and sniff the artificial bones around each platform. They eat something on stage. They scurry around the platforms but never bother the three women. When the ‘show’ is about to begin, the dogs leave, the lights lower and then rise again up full. Stage left is the narrator and participant in the production, Willem Dafoe. He is on a set piece that has risen from the orchestra pit. He sits in a ratty office chair in which the back is tapped together. Neat bundles of tied news papers surround him. His face is made-up in garish make-up—white face, red lips, black around the eyes etc. He could be ‘The Joker’ or in a German cabaret. His red hair is spiked high.

In quick sentences he goes through the dated milestones of Marina Abramovic’s life; born; her first period; ill health; her father deserts the family; her mother’s cruelty; meeting the love of her life; art; parting; more art; The Artist is Present and now The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic.

It’s a whirlwind of information with startling images projected on the back wall of the stage, with various characters, some bald, in dresses, white face and moustache, flitting across the stage. Because I am in the front row at the very side, getting focused on what is said and being able to see the full perspective of the stage, is difficult. Not an ideal location for reviewing a show properly, but ‘we’ do our best.

Abramovic plays both herself and her cold, unloving, unforgiving mother. As her mother, she walks across the stage to the accompaniment of a hard, clomping foot fall, arms folded across her chest, her white gloved hands gripping the sides of her black-clad arms, one finger tapping on the arm. The message is unmistakable with that tapping figure—irritation, impatience, pent up anger. At one point she looks out to the audience and ‘smiles’ a tight, hard smile. No warmth in that smile. She approaches a character dressed as a little girl and slaps her. It won’t be the first time.

Interestingly Marina Abramovic herself for the most part is a silent participant and mostly an observer of her own unfolding life. She does recite several recipes that deal with pain, and haltingly sings a song,  but otherwise her speaking is spare.

Antony, without his band The Johnsons, has written several songs for this production and sings them in his distinctive, angelic voice. The music and his singing are ethereal and evocative. “Cut the World” is particularly haunting and moving.  As is the music of Svetlana Spajic.

This being a Robert Wilson production, the style and design are artificial and provocative. Image after image is compelling and arresting. Movement is deliberately slow. Set pieces float out from the wings at a glacial pace, soon joined by other pieces from the other side of the stage. A man in spandex walks slowly across the stage with a beautiful yellow python around his shoulders, winding around his arm and down around his thigh. The snake is real. Other characters follow, each carrying a large knife. At the end of the production Abramovic and the other two like images are raised into the air like angels.

Is there a meaning to the images? Is it symbolism? Is the question too literal? Are we to accept them as is? Questions, questions. But that is the beauty of a Robert Wilson production I think; there are more questions than answers. The look of it; the shear theatricality is not in question. The production is gorgeous–the costumes, the lighting, the images–even from my too close, side view.

If there is a star of the production, it is Willem Dafoe as both narrator and participant. He has a finesse and sense of danger in performance. As he recites the dates and events of Abramovic’s life he is almost sarcastic in his tone.  His voice is malleable. His expression and physical dextrousness is impressive. He is fearless and frightening at once. But he is also extremely moving.

In Act II he is surrounded by crumpled sheets of paper. Is it news paper? Are they just jottings? Don’t know. He randomly picks up a sheet of paper, reads the date and the notes as if they are Abramovic’s musings. Puts the page down; picks up another; reads the date and then the note. The jottings are full of disappointment in love; being left for another; hoping the lover will see the show and not coming; she and her lover each walking 2500 kilometres, she from one direction, he from another, to meet and then say good by; psychoanalysis; finally happiness. This time there is no shred of sarcasm. There is softness, consideration, empathy.

In stillness and silence Abramovic is mesmerizing. There is something about her gaze that is both compelling and full of composure. It certainly has been a rich life with many twists and turns. Perhaps each change represents a kind of death, which might explain the last part of the title. (but then wouldn’t it be “The Life and Deaths of Marina Abramovic”?) Questions, questions.

I found the whole experience of this production fascinating but question the point of it in the first place. It seems that every single part of Abramovic’s life has been recorded, documented or utubed. And while absolute honesty is the cornerstone of her work, I thought some omissions in her story puzzling. The love of her life, with whom she lived and created art for 10 years, is frequently referenced in the narrative but not named. How odd. He was Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). Why not name him?  Is she being coy?

They both did walk 2500 kilometres towards each other when they decided to end their relationship in 1988, but not mentioned is that the journey took place from either end of the Great Wall of China, where they met in the middle, hugged and parted. There is a heightened romanticism in that journey to their end on that Wall—both creating the grand gesture even at the end. Both odd omissions. Still a fascinating production.

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre June 15 (eve), 16 (Mat.), 17 (eve)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mackenzie L June 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm

I thought this play was really bad. It was boring and made no sense. I feel people pretend to enjoy plays such as these to seem cultured or to fit in. If it had been done by a bunch of amateur actors and writers, I think it would be slammed! Also this review incorrectly names the play in the last sentence…


2 Lynn Slotkin June 18, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for the correction and the different opinion. I would think that there are as many different opinions as there were people in the audience watching the performance. And every opinion is correct. Cheers