Manchester International Festival Preview: The Old Woman

Kate Feld
Manchester International Festival, The Old Woman, Mikhail Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe star in MIF’s new adaptation of Daniil Kharms’ absurdist novella.

Mikhail Baryshnikov would have been enough for most festivals. You know they could have sold tickets to the mega-superstar dancer, choreographer and actor just standing on stage reading the shipping forecast, and hordes of Baryshniphiles would have turned up to swoon. But for this summer’s Manchester International Festival we get not just Mikey B. but the epically intense Willem Dafoe in a new adaptation of an absurdist Russian novella directed by experimental theatre guru (and frequent MIF collaborator) Robert Wilson. Somewhere an avant-garde angel just got his wings.

The Old Woman was written in 1939 by Russian writer Daniil Kharms, a blazing talent who met an untimely end in Stalin’s Gulags at 36. The young Kharms had a penchant for doing and saying mad things while puffing away on a spectacular pipe, clad in British formal attire (personal obsessions included Sherlock Holmes and occult books). He quickly became a well-known figure in late 1920s Leningrad, widely regarded as a genius, a complete idiot, or both. In 1928 he helped found the OBERIU collective, an influential group whose discursive plays and writings prepared the ground for the Theatre of the Absurd. Kharms fell afoul of Stalin’s increasingly brutal clampdown on artistic expression, and lived in penury for much of the next decade before imprisonment and death. But Kharms is not forgotten. Apart from his serious adult works like The Old Woman (considered a classic up there with Waiting For Godot), Kharms is still loved in Russia for his children’s fiction. In his short lifetime he wrote dozens of children’s books and short stories, though in private, Kharms couldn’t abide kids – something that quickly becomes clear early in The Old Woman, when the protagonist casually outlines an imaginative punishment for the noisy neighbourhood children.

He was regarded as a genius, a complete idiot, or both

It will be interesting to see what these artists make of Kharms’ tale, the hectic internal monologue of a writer who is prevented from doing his work by an unusual chain of events: “Now I feel sleepy but I am not going to sleep. I get hold of a piece of paper and a pen and I am going to write. I feel within me a terrible power. I thought it all over as long ago as yesterday. It will be the story about a miracle worker who is living in our time and who doesn’t work any miracles. He knows that he is a miracle worker and that he can perform any miracle, but he doesn’t do so. He is thrown out of his flat and he knows that he only has to wave a finger and the flat will remain his, but he doesn’t do this; he submissively moves out of the flat and lives out of town in a shed. He is capable of turning this shed into a fine brick house, but he doesn’t do this; he carries on living in the shed and eventually dies, without having done a single miracle in the whole of his life.”

What happens to stop him from writing? Well, that would be telling. But in a time of social unrest, widespread deprivation and the rise of nationalist regimes around the world, Kharms’ is a tale with special significance, speaking to us across the years from a time that is starting to look a lot more like our own. In these days of PRISM, it seems the literature of the absurd has much to teach us.

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