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William Kentridge’s Sibyl at the Barbican — enigmatic and beguiling

A tree gracefully sheds leaves of paper bearing cryptic statements about the future. As people gather around to pick them up, the scene has the valedictory feel of autumn; ominous, too. But what does it mean?

The questions multiply throughout Sibyl, the latest stage work from William Kentridge, South African artist, theatre director and all-round creator. It is described as a two-part film and opera, though it is really more of an art installation, if that bothers anybody when today’s art forms are busy morphing into each other.

At the weekend, Sibyl arrived in London, following its premiere in Rome in 2019. Given Kentridge’s celebrity, it is guaranteed to travel widely; further performances are already planned at the Ruhrfestspiele in Germany and Berkeley, California.

Combining art, theatre, music and dance, Sibyl is 21st-century international culture par excellence. Language is not much of a problem, as there is no dialogue. The sayings of the Sibyl, a prophet from Greek legend, are represented by cryptic lines of poetry from Finland, Israel, South America and elsewhere, and the music is a blend of mostly African styles. The result is often beguiling, always enigmatic. Do not expect it to add up to much.

It was probably not a good idea to come to Sibyl directly from watching news reports from the war zone. The two parts last barely more than an hour and it takes that long to shake off the real world and tune into its elliptical, very arty wavelength. Part one, The Moment Has Gone, is a short film with piano and male vocal quartet. The charcoal drawings, often seen as moving images in time-lapse animation, are familiar Kentridge territory and as imaginative as ever. The music goes along in parallel with no obvious relation to the film.

Teresa Phuti Mojela as the Sybil © Stella Olivier

The longer part two, Waiting for the Sibyl, consists of a series of tableaux, in which a small company of singers and dancers join in scenes of varied moods, any cumulative impact being sketchy. The ensemble helps project an uplifting sense of community, though one humorous episode is given over to a lone dancer, bemused by chairs that unpredictably move or collapse.

Kentridge says the theme of Sibyl is how one’s fate is known, but none of us actually knows what it is. It is unlikely anybody would grasp that without being primed in advance, though signs do gradually emerge of a world in decline. Each part ends with memorable images, the first an art gallery crumbling to dust, the second the tree losing its leaves.

Kentridge’s fellow creators are composers Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd, doubling as pianist. The vocal quartet in part one are especially engaging. Dancer Teresa Phuti Mojela whirls tirelessly as the Sibyl.

In pushing the boundaries, Sibyl recalls other mould-breaking operas, such as Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, staged at the Barbican 10 years ago. Sibyl, though, is easier to enjoy. The visuals are more exquisite and it is much, much shorter.

★★★☆☆

barbican.org.uk

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