Saturday was closing night for William Kentridge’s staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses at Project Artaud, a production that incorporated puppetry, hand drawn animation and a diverse sampling of various body-imaging video from MRIs to CAT scans. A command to disable our “reproductive devices” before the performance began elicited a chuckle from the audience which was met with annoyance by the seemingly distracted SFMOMA director.
Kentridge moves the action of the Prologue to an operating theater. As the musicians look on from the raised tier above, Time, Fortune and Love examine the huddled form of Ulysses on his bed, employing a pointer to delineate the many sufferings he has endured during his travels. Ulysses, represented by one of the nearly life-sized wooden puppets, barely stirs beneath his bedsheet. The accompanying projection on a screen above interweaves animation of the ills the flesh is heir to with actual footage from medical videos: disquieting glimpses of organs being probed and journeys through quivering canals. So in actuality Ulysses is somewhere betwixt the two states hinted at by the stage and screen: hospitalized but perhaps barely clinging to life.
As far as visual input goes, that’s a lot of balls to keep juggling in the air at once, and at times I had to concentrate so that my attention wouldn’t fixate on one aspect of the production over another. There are a number of nice touches that help bridge the divide. As the puppeteer manipulates his character on the right, the singer keeps one hand on it from the opposite side (the puppeteers of Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company appear in full view onstage, Bunraku-style, but dapper in suits or dresses rather than swathed in black). Together, the singer and the puppeteer keep their eyes fixed on the character’s face and you can read the range of emotions in their countenances as well as in the puppet’s movements and the swelling of baritone and soprano. At times the screen becomes a backdrop. After Ulysses finally finds the strength to leave his sick bed, he arises and, sheets wrapped about him like a toga, strides confidently in front of the projection, footage of hospital corridors trailing behind him.
Unsurprisingly though, it is Kentridge’s signature animation that holds everything together. Cartoonish renderings of a knee being sutured abstract into dozens of stitches appearing first as little macaroni curves piercing the positive space before pulling taut into straight lines by an invisible hand. As they multiply we are reminded of Penelope’s tapestry needlework which she builds up only to unravel later. Stitches become threads, which in their turn become the string of Ulysses’ bow and the very arrows with which he dispatches the suitors.
It is this mingling of physical trauma and pathology with our life’s journey that form the backbone of the production. In Kentridge’s Ulysses we are always aware of the hair’s breath that we all are from illness and bodily harm and that our lives can be seen as ones of rapid growth followed by continual decline. Kentridge pairs Ulysses’ distraught wandering and all its attendant woes with the vicissitudes of aging: the degradation of our mind’s sharpness and the wasting away of our physical selves. Disease mirrors dis-ease. The deterioration of our bodies, and with them our intentions, hopes and resolve, is metaphorically represented by images of temples crumpling into ruin, of the ancient succeeded by the modern as scrolling pastoral landscapes fill with the choking presence of the street signs and highways of contemporary Johannesburg. Cross-stitches too must eat up the blank cloth; animation is a succession of images wherein the new one must kill the old in order to come to life, like a cancerous growth. It is a lament perhaps, but Kentridge, by blending the many visual sources together is also reminding us that it is the natural order of things.
Of course, Ulysses does eventually recover his resolve and vigor, and like Penelope unraveling the tapestry and beginning anew, the temples rebuild themselves. Spreading ventricles in a anatomical cross-section sprout into trees in bloom. Kentridge recognizes that the arc of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses is one of reawakening to purpose and as the opera progresses the number of joyful moments begin to increase in number. The suitors that appear late to the tale stole the show when they punctuated each chorus that Penelope would love again with a little waggle of their bodies. When the old shepherd Eumaeus and Ulysses walk through the fields, their gaze darting about as if to take in every bit of wonder in the landscape, the accompanying duet between Jason McStoots and Ross Hauck made me almost wish people sang their lives in the real world. Transformation of the decrepit to the fecund is part of the magic of the opera, and Kentridge tries to help we the viewers relearn how we react to images that we respond to based on association. Video of a cardiac operation may strike us initially as morbid, but Ulysses tries to teach us to appreciate the fact that our heartbeats are the tempo of our lives keeping time for us whether we bow to our suffering or not.