wed 11/12/2019

Laurie Anderson, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Laurie Anderson, Barbican Theatre

Laurie Anderson, Barbican Theatre

More songs and performance art about sleep and death

Laurie Anderson: teasingly cryptic and telling apparently disparate tales

“I want to tell you a story. About a story.” Thus spake Laurie Anderson at the beginning of her new show, Delusion, which is running for four nights as part of the Barbican’s Bite season. It was a typically cryptic, teasing prologue from a woman who, for more than 30 years, has created her own unique brand of performance art from a combination of music, poetry, stories, visual effects and electronic sounds.

Here she was accompanied by two musicians, on sax and violin, who spent most of the evening silhouetted behind two screens; by her own electric violin; by pre-recorded and sampled sounds; and by a series of stunning images, still and moving, which were projected behind her and around her. Anderson, with her cropped hair and elfin features, seemed barely touched by the decades that have passed since her surprise 1981 hit single, "O Superman"; she moved with grace and slowness and spoke in mesmerising cadences as Delusion - which premiered earlier this year at the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad - unfolded.

To begin with, she told the story of a donkey and a carrot to illustrate how she had lost, as it were, her mojo; then, after a brief and angular musical interlude, she switched to her alter-ego, a man called Fenway Bergamot (apparently her husband, Lou Reed, came up with the name). Using the battery of effects at her fingertips, she now spoke in a deep, resonant and somewhat sardonic male voice, in which she talked for a while about the Large Hadron Collider.

If all this sounds a bit murky and weird, well... as Anderson herself might say: it was, and it wasn’t. There was no coherent narrative at work here. We heard a series of apparently disparate tales told by contrasting voices, male and female. Among the fragments: a frank revelation, when talking about her dying mother, that she had never loved her; a series of extracts that were taken, judging by their weirdness, from her dream diary (eating a penguin in a restaurant, giving birth to her dog); and a meditation on the bizarre notion that corporations might be treated, in law, as individuals.

There were jokes, too: a couple in their nineties had hated each other for decades, and finally decided to divorce. “Why didn’t you do it sooner?” asked their friends. “We wanted to wait until the children had died,” they replied. And the music: much of it was not exactly melodic, but one episode, when shards of rain slanted in torrents across the screens and Anderson and her accompanists created a Celtic-flavoured thrum of sound, was spellbinding.

And as it went on, a theme emerged like a ship from a sea mist: the arrogance of mankind (“The reason I love the stars is that we can’t hurt them, but we are reaching for them”), and of superpowers (“Who owns the moon?”), and of individuals (the tale of an Icelandic man and his mad plan to build a barn for barn dances in the middle of nowhere produced the show’s only use of its title-word when Anderson described him as “delusional”). Also, repeatedly, came the refrain, a plea to her America: “How do we begin again?”

So yes, for all its tangents and fragments, Delusion has a thread, a theme. But, I think, that’s not really what it was “about”. This was, above all, an emotional journey, and one that had the haunting and lingering quality of a strange, beautiful and at times rather scary dream.

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