Robert Wilson as director and artist has the reputation of a minimalist capable of powerful theater that is maximal in scale.
Put Virginia Woolf's piece of gender writing titled "Orlando" in his hands and the novel's adaptation promises to be a two-hour performance with a radical difference from previous productions, inviting reflection. But that is precisely what Wilson wants to see happen.
Of his theater, the 67-year-old Wilson said: "I suggest my feelings and ideas. But I don't insist that you think what I am thinking."
Wilson's latest directorial venture will show renowned Beijing opera actress Wei Hai-ming as never seen before. Wei is reprising the solo role of Orlando and telling his/her life story, spanning 400 years. "Orlando" has been described as "an elaborate love letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West." The play's scenario will be based this time on Wang An-chi's adaptation of Woolf's novel.
Wilson's followers in Taipei are already wondering out loud what the innovative Texas-born artist is up to in order to make his latest adaptation of a classic work, this time in Chinese, shine. His earlier versions of "Orlando" were in German, English and French.
Jutta Lampe was the very capable German actress Wilson worked with in his first adaptation of "Orlando." Miranda Richardson and Isabelle Huppert starred in Wilson's British and French theater versions of Woolf's novel.
Wilson knew Wei Hai-ming to have been trained from an early age in the theatrical language of the body and the voice. She has technique which western artists do not have.
Early on, Wilson revealed that he had told Wei to forget everything she was trained to do in her professional career. He expected her to do the simplest thing, which could be the most difficult, like just standing on the stage.
If the spectators of "Orlando" will begin asking what Wilson is trying to do, then he will have achieved his objective to get people to ask: What is this?
Wilson first attempted to stage Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" 10 years ago after his interest was fanned by "the very visual text." As soon as the rehearsals began, however, he realized that he had to work on "Orlando" in a way "other than the direct illustration of the text."
Wilson remarked: "There is a language of the body. This language speaks for itself." He claimed to think of movement as not about the text. His theater is non-interpretative.
Wilson recently described his working process this way: "I usually find some simple keys to get on with the piece. Usually this is something that I can quickly see in a diagram like mathematics."
As a student of architecture, he experienced on the third year of his five-year course his teacher telling the class: "You have only three minutes to design a city." This mentor taught him to think very quickly, according to Wilson.
And so Wilson constantly found himself asking: "What is it I am doing?"
Wilson spoke of his adaptation of "Orlando" in architectural terms: "There are three parts. Part One is dark. It is mostly horizontal and vertical lines. Part Two is gray. It's a center. It's constructed with horizontal and curved lines architecturally speaking. Part Three is light and color. It is mostly curved lines."
According to Wilson, the staging of Part One will be completely abstract. The text will fill in the imagery. In the middle of Part Two, a big tree will emerge on the stage.
The play starts with Orlando as a 16-year-old boy. Midway in Part Two, a tree appears. Orlando goes behind the tree and reappears as a girl. The last part begins in the 20th century 400 years later.
The boy-girl journey is a mental one, according to Wilson. Wei Hai-ming leads the audience in this journey.
At first Wilson felt daunted by the big size of the National Theater. But having learned from his previous theater productions, such as "Einstein on the Beach," he knew that it would be amazing to see small movements in a big theater.
He could start with silence, then add light. Light creates space. In fact, without light, there is no space.
"Orlando" will be presented at the National Theater in Taipei at 7:30 p.m. on February 21 and from February 24 to 28 as well as at 2:30 p.m. on February 22 and March 1.