Theatre review: Robert Wilson's Peter Pan is a sublime journey to Neverland

Robert Wilson’s production Peter Pan will be staged as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014. -- PHOTO: LUCIE JANSCH AND THE BERLINER ENSEMBLE
Robert Wilson’s production Peter Pan will be staged as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014. -- PHOTO: LUCIE JANSCH AND THE BERLINER ENSEMBLE

We all know the story. The little winged boy, peeking through the nursery window, not wanting to grow up but not wanting to leave - and the subsequent tale of swashbuckling adventure that follows, from crocodiles to pirates to mermaids.

It is every child's escapist dream - or is it?

This sublime, near-perfect production by the magnetic Berliner Ensemble and directed by theatre royalty Robert Wilson takes what has been interpreted many times before as a fluffy fairy tale and thrusts it back to us in a spiky, dark leather jacket, with a kiss and a warning.

This spectacular visual feast feels like a bit of a surreal pantomime tossed together with a whimsical cabaret, equal parts Salvador Dali and RuPaul's Drag Race, more Wendy in Wonderland than Wendy in Neverland.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan will find the narrative and its scenes recognisable but utterly transformed, whether it is the family dog Nana, now split into three masked and woofing chambermaids, putting the children to bed, or Captain Hook (Joachim Nimtz) channelling the spirit of Bono (with several stiff brush-haired pirate groupies), or a twitchy, angular Tinkerbell (Christopher Nell, in drag), clad in jewel green and behaving like a little bundle of static and lightning.

What happens, Wilson asks, if the boy who never wants to grow up is already a man? Are we not all hiding the child within, the tiny voice who doesn't want to go to school (or work), who yearns to shed all responsibilities and tumble out an open window into an endless sky?

In this vein, Wilson casts the effervescent Peter (played by Sabin Tambrea to glittery perfection) in an ambivalent light, fully grown but also edged with a recklessness and a latent sexual hunger that is both charming and frightening, mining the relationships between Wendy, Peter and Tinkerbell for their shadowy corners and murky twists and turns.

Peter spirits Wendy and her brothers away to the magical Neverland, where they encounter spiteful mermaids and befriend the Lost Boys, who later appoint Wendy their "mother".

There is a heightened questioning of what love and attachment really is, with the knowledge that the frilly, white-clad Wendy is just a girl and Peter, in contrast, an almost devilish man who says he loves her, a combination almost unbearable to behold. And yet, because Peter is simultaneously a boy, there is an earnest naivete to this relationship, of something that can never be.

Wilson has long been a polarising figure in avant garde theatre, dubbed a genius but also of pretensions to genius, often accused of style over substance. And in his more ponderous productions that stretch out for hours on end, beautiful but hollow, this might have been the case.

Not so with Peter Pan.

There is a drive and energy to this storytelling, elevated by the stunning soundtrack of American "freak folk" band CocoRosie and gilded by The Dark Angels band playing live. The luscious, memorable songs range from the searingly operatic to the infectiously rhythmic, swinging from a heartbreaking aria by Tinkerbell to a chant-like sequence from Tiger Lily (Georgios Tsivanoglou, also in drag) almost reminiscent of The Lion King.

Wilson's trademark visual flair also permeates the production. How many shades of blue sky and sea can there be? A cobalt blue of longing, an ominous azure, a hopeful faded blue dawn. Silhouettes, loose-limbed, prance against a glowing backdrop with wild abandon; clouds sail by, pushed by stage hands; lightbulbs gleam and disappear.

And as much as Peter Pan is a testament to the taciturn Wilson's genius, it is also a showcase for the genius of the Ensemble, with many of its incredibly versatile members slipping effortlessly into multiple roles.

The Berliner Ensemble is the flag bearer for the late theatre legend Bertolt Brecht, who put forward many of the theatre theories that influenced Western theatre in the 20th century. But its current artistic director, Claus Peymann, has reiterated that three-dimensional theatre cannot be confined to two-dimensional theories.

So while there are some obvious "Brechtian" techniques - addressing the audience directly, revealing the mechanics of all "special effects", interrupting what were initially heartrending moments with caustic humour - to get the audience to interrogate a work cerebrally rather than lose themselves in a play emotionally, there are several layers at play throughout the production.

First, there is a sort of knowing, deliberate acknowledgement of what these techniques are, pointing them out splashily to the audience with a sort of complicit "look, recognise this?".

And yet, there is also a deeply visceral tug that compels one to feel deeply for the characters despite an open invitation not to. One cannot help but feel for a maligned Tinkerbell, even if she is styled like an ugly fairy godmother. There are cheap shots in the dialogue out to garner laughs, but also startlingly Shakespearean monologues from Captain Hook, who considers Peter Pan his "every foe" - but also his "only friend".

These pluralities are what make the piece so defiantly engaging, at once a quiet meditation of mortality and attachment (whether to life, or to people) even as the show wrings every bit of laughter and tears from every perfectly-composed frame. So bleak but so beautiful, so awful but so tender, so in-your-face yet so subtle, a giddy journey reeling from extreme to extreme.

But is this not how theatre should be, so polarising that about five people in the row in front of me left during the intermission, but the 95 per cent of the audience that stayed were on their feet, clapping and bopping along with the cast members during a 15-minute curtain call.

If this is Neverland - I never want to grow up.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Peter Pan is sold out.