The Return of Ulysses

San Franciscans will not want to miss Claudio Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses, staged and directed by artist William Kentridge, running at the Project Artaud Theater running through Saturday, March 28th.
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The South African artist William Kentridge is currently the subject of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in conjunction with that exhibit—William Kentridge: Five Themes, which is on until May 31st—music and art lovers can see Monteverdi’s 1640 retelling of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, slaying of the suitors and reclaiming his place as king alongside the beleaguered Penelope and rejoicing Telemachos. Though the music, wonderfully sung and delightfully played by an octet including two massive archlutes, a harp and violas de gamba, is reason enough to go, Kentridge’s collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa gives the production as much visual as aural allure.

The life-sized, wooden puppets, deftly manipulated by a puppeteer and singer, convey all the longing, grief and bloody vengeance found in Homer. Kentridge, most loved perhaps as an animator, has produced a kind of secondary narrative of drawings, video and collage projected above the stage. As the viewer’s eyes move from singer to puppet to screen to super-titles, one simply can’t focus on just a single element of the performance. And weren’t the story of Ulysses return so well known, the audience might well lose the plot altogether.

Telemachos in The Return of Ulysses. Photo by Johan Jacobs courtesy of Handspring Puppet Company.

Ulysses as a dying old man and a traveler on the road back to Ithaca. Photo by Johan Jacobs courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Theater.

I first came to Kentridge’s animation, like all great things, via Youtube. I spent a good hour one day watching short film after short film, the majority a kind of personal-political take on race relations in South Africa and the plunder of the native landscape, like the wonderful Johannesburg. Though his work is essentially political, Kentridge’s fascination with architecture and landscape is patently clear. From the depiction of the sooty and exploitative mines—a precursor perhaps to Edward Burtynsky and an echo of DH Lawrence—to the erection of a craven monument to the slow degradation of the South African landscape, Kentridge’s message is one that applies to many facets of society. A facile reading of his animation would pigeonhole him as a crusader against Apartheid and cutthroat capitalism, but a second look reveals an environmentalist deeply concerned with the built environment.

Though architecture wasn’t the primary focus of his staging of The Return of Ulysses, it crept in time and again. The repeated image of a crumbling temple—the Acropolis perhaps (an architecturally metonymous nod to Ulysses’ great protector Minerva)—rebuilt once he finally retakes the throne of Ithaca suggests both the hero’s harrowing journey and a kind of physical restoration of order. Modern city streets creep into Ulysses’ dreams, the geometry of the cityscapes an echo of the perfection of the Attic forms to which he so much wants to return. You ought to get there yourself.

Photographs by Johan Jacobs, courtesy of Handspring Puppet Company.


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