Sunday, 21 May 2017

No Supermen or Bowie, Just Glass and Anderson. This is American Style.

If you went to the Theatre Royal on Friday expecting American Style to be a synergistic fusion of the avant-garde, or a boundary-breaking exploration of new territories, then I guess you were in for a disappointment, and deservedly so. If, however, you were ready to embrace a collaborative 'state of the world' cultural collage from two of the most iconic figures from the American music and arts scene, then this was a beautiful and engaging performance.

Yes, this was the hottest ticket in town, the must-see performance from Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and one that turned the Norfolk and Norwich Festival booking line red-hot when seats went on sale back in February.

Neither is this a schmaltzy greatest hits show - there are no 'O Superman' moments or Bowie-inspired piano arrangements. Instead, this is a coalescent commentary on the past, the present and the future with contributions from Glass and Anderson based respectively on memory, uncertainty and concerns. Joining them on stage is guest cellist Rubin Kodheli.

At an early point during Laurie Anderson's visual projections there appears a sobering message on agiant chalkboard - 'Empire is ending...   as all empires do'. Later, as the trio are about to perform an improvisation piece, Anderson addresses the audience with the joke about the couple who finally decide to divorce upon reaching their nineties. It is no 'stand-up' moment, but as Anderson explains, the whole of America now appears to be improvising, making everything up on a day-to-day basis.

Philip Glass recalls his friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg, and plays against a sound recording of Ginsberg reading from his anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra. Later the voice of Lou Reed is heard, and, later still, the words of Leonard Cohen are added to Glass' soundtrack of reminiscence.

The building of the wall between heaven and earth in Aristophanes' 'The Birds' is recounted in a seated reading from Anderson. Her sultry and rhythmic automaton-like delivery is as hypnotically seductive as ever. She also recalls the time when, as a student seeking election to the college council, she wrote to Jack Kennedy for advice, and received a reply. There are stories about whales asking if all oceans have walls, the revelation that 99% of all catalogued animal species are now extinct, and the reminder that most animals spend their entire living in fear. Yet animals exist in the moment.

Anderson plays violin to Glass' piano and Kodheli's cello during the instrumental passages and, whilst arguably the music occasionally behaves as little more than a conduit to the next link, it is the contextual beauty of the entire show that leaves a lasting memory long after any critical nit-picking has concluded.

American Style is an experience as much as it is a performance. It is reflective and prophetic, classical as well as contemporary. We are all so wrapped up in the moment that the one hour forty five duration passes without us even noticing the absence of an interval. There is no encore either, but to be quite honest nothing else was required. Just an ovational appreciation from those fortunate enough to be present.

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