BERLIN — Avant-garde director Robert Wilson returns to the Berliner Ensemble on April 17 with a production of James Matthew Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” In keeping with his successful collaborations with Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed on “The Shakespeare Sonnets” and Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu,” respectively, Wilson chose Brooklyn-based musicians Sierra and Bianca Casady, aka CocoRosie, for his trip to Neverland.
ARTINFO Germany caught up with Wilson as rehearsals were coming to a close, to talk about the origins of this latest project, choosing CocoRosie, and the possible whereabouts of Neverland.
The choice of this play seems slightly atypical for you. How did it come about?
Claus Peymann [the director of the Berliner Ensemble] suggested it. We were trying to think of something that would be different from what I’ve done here before. I’ve done many works at the Berliner Ensemble: Shakespeare, Heiner Müller, Bertolt Brecht, Georg Büchner. I would have never expected to do “Peter Pan.” It was kind of a surprise.
Did you have a relationship to “Peter Pan” as a child?
I was a little aware of the story when I was a child. Much later, I was an assistant to Jerome Robbins, probably the most successful director and choreographer of Broadway theater; he did “Westside Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Jerry had directed a very famous production of “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin on Broadway, and of all of his work, it was one of his favorite productions. So I became more familiar with the subject matter. Then, I saw the Disney version. And now, I am trying to find mine.
The introduction to this production begins with a quote: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
It came about developing this work. It’s curious: if you go back to the original “Peter Pan” it’s a very cruel, dark story, very different from the Disney world. I think that “Peter Pan” is a prism of very many personas, the dark sides of the character and the lighter sides, and how they somehow support each other. This is one of the failures of the Disney “Peter Pan.” It’s too light. Only when you’re in hell do you know where heaven is.
And where is Neverland?
It’s like what Tom Waits’s caterpillar says to Alice in our production of “Alice in Wonderland”: “Everything you can think of is true.”
In your early career, you worked with disabled children. In 1970 you created “Deafman Glance” with and for Raymond Andrews, a deaf boy. You said, at the time, that these children perceived differently, from a different space. Would you call that a kind of Neverland, too?
Do you know Christopher Knowles, the autistic poet? I did a performance with Chris, when he was 15, in Shiraz. We had been touring for almost eight months. It was the last performance, and it was for Farah Diba, then the empress of Iran. I said to Chris, “We want to do something special tonight, the queen is coming.” He didn’t really understand who the queen was, but he understood “something special.” So at the end of the performance, he said the word “tape recorder” for 10 minutes, very beautifully; it was like Satie, with a very delicate modulation of his voice. I was moved to tears. The audience was crying in the other way: “My God, how long is this kid going to say, ‘tape recorder,’ and when are we going to get out of here?” There was no applause at the end of the performance. When we were leaving the stage, Chris turned to me and said, “Who cares to have your mind be so smooth?” In a sense, that is Neverland for me.
CocoRosie are writing the music for “Peter Pan.” Was it clear from the start that you would be working with them?
No. I had originally asked Antony [Hegarty] from Antony and the Johnsons to do the music, I had just worked with him on [“The Life and Death of] Marina Abramovic,” and I thought that his music would be good for “Peter Pan.” He was considering it, but then he said he wanted to write an opera and felt he would be too slow. So he asked me to find someone else. I was devastated; I was about to give up the project. Then, it was a Thursday and I had to decide whether to do it or not. So I called Antony in the morning – my last chance to see if I could convince him to do it. He said no again, but he suggested I ask CocoRosie. I didn’t know them. I had a 6:30 flight to Sweden that day; I was in New York, and they came around at 3 o’clock. After about five minutes, I said, “Would you guys like to do this? I have to leave right now to the airport. I have a meeting on Sunday morning with the Berliner Ensemble, and I have to make a decision.” They said, “Oh yeah, we’d love to do it.” By Sunday morning, I had three songs. What’s fascinating is that they are not only brilliant songwriters and musicians, they also have a great visual sense. They really are visual artists too. It’s great to work with them.
How did you approach this production?
I usually start rehearsals with an empty space and try not to have any ideas. I used to, when I was younger, think if I didn’t know what I was going to do before I went to a rehearsal, I would be unprepared. But I’ve found, as I got older, that I was wasting a lot of time. I was trying to make ideas that were in my head. So now, it’s more, just looking at the room, looking at the people, and letting that talk to me.
Your sets are famous for their visual impact. Do you create them from what you see, too?
I usually start with some sort of formula. The first thing I do in rehearsal is light the space, and then I sketch something for how the space will look. Once that’s done, I can be much freer. When I started rehearsing yesterday morning with the Tiger Lily actor, I spent about an hour and a half lighting the space, arranging it. Then I said to Georgios [Tsivanoglou], the actor, “Do something.” It’s much easier for me to decide what to do once I know what the space looks like. It’s a dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, how have you found communicating with actors whose language you don’t speak?
I did Ibsen in Korea, Chekhov in Japan, now I’m doing a play in São Paulo; I’ve worked in Russian, in Farsi, at the Comédie-Française with classically-trained actors, with the National Theatre in Athens, we did “The Odyssey” in Modern Greek — I’ve been doing it for a long time, working in a language I don’t speak. [Buckminster] Fuller, the architect, said, “If you think you don’t understand a language, you won’t. But if you don’t think about it, you’ll understand something.” Very often during rehearsals I will say to an actor, “I don’t believe you.” Somehow, I don’t have to know the language to know that.