The Old Woman is the two-man flagship theatre production of Manchester International Festival 2013, starring Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov (if you want to sound fancypants, comment loudly that you last saw Baryshnikov in Ställe. If you want to be honest, whisper that you last saw him in Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw).
The show is a loose adaptation of The Old Woman by Russian author Daniil Kharms. So loose in fact, it could give the ladies of the night behind Piccadilly Station a run for their money. Reading the short story — an abstract tale that follows a struggling writer faced with the unexpected arrival (and death) of an old woman — does help. A bit. But if you’re after a gripping plot with a clear narrative arc, you won’t find it here. You’d be hard pushed to find a plot at all. Instead, in its place are stark set pieces and mesmerising lighting displays that wouldn’t look out of place in Nathan Barley’s flat.
When I arrived at the Palace Theatre, I admit I was nervous. I’d heard the show was gloriously online casino odd at best and bad enough to walk out at worst. The lack of an interval did nothing to allay my fears — imagining myself held captive by Dafoe, and swiftly developing Stockholm Syndrome with the guy who made American Psycho nervous. And the verdict? Well, it was a little of both. Theatrical Marmite, if you will — dark, rich and meaty. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Highly experimental, every movement was orchestrated down to the last second. The two leads must have been practicing so long, it may well have been originally titled ‘The Much Younger Woman Who Hadn’t Yet Let Herself Go’.
Much of the delight comes from seeing the two stars as you’ve never seen them before (in this case, as though they’d been bobbing for apples in a bucket of Tipp-Ex). After all, most of us haven’t cared much for Sonic the Hedgehog post-1994, but if your best mate turned up to a fancy dress party in a cock-clinging blue lycra morph suit, you’d be trying to get #blueballs trending by your second pint. There’s just something appealing about the familiar appearing unfamiliar.
Lesser talent may have well struggled to achieve the precision of the performance too. Every step taken, every item moved, every glass of vodka lifted was heralded by a deafening click, bang or shift in light — a similar story to my own life. Except that when I slam a tenth vodka down at the end of a night, the smash is typically followed by a drunken text and uncontrollable crying. Whereas Dafoe and Baryshnikov should be applauded for their almost robotic approach, giving credibility to a piece so bizarre, it wasn’t so much left-field as all the way into the next field and beyond, grinning inanely at amorous farmers as they apply yet another slick of lipstick to their woolly companions (all to a finely tuned soundscape and choreographed routine of course).
As precise as it was bewildering, it was a sight to behold. If only to experience LSD, as channelled through an Excel spreadsheet.