Zeno at 4 am: Director’s Note

William Kentridge

Guido: “My dear Zeno, I am the most intelligent man in Trieste. You are the fifth most intelligent. Positions two, three, and four are vacant.”

When I first read Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno some twenty years ago, one of the things that drew me to it was the evocation of Trieste as a rather desperate provincial city at the edge of an empire – away from the centre, the real world. I was intrigued how an Austrian Italian writing in the 1920s could have such a sense of how it felt to be in Johannesburg in the 1980’s. In the years following this has persisted. And caused me to return to the book.

But other elements of the book have come to engage me as well.

Zeno, the hero of Svevo’s novel, has remarkable self-knowledge. But it is knowledge that is without effect. This absolute inability of self-knowledge to force Zeno to act, or at other times to stop him from acting, feels familiar. People stuck at the edge of a historical project about to implode, stuck waiting for the eruption to happen. The teasing out of our ambiguous sense of place, and the convoluted relation we have to our own sense of self, form the starting point for the work of transforming the book from someone else’s text into a piece of our own making. Not trying to put Svevo’s book on the stage, but to use is as  a goad, a beacon and shared vision to begin a new work which incorporates theatrical performance, animation, projection.


Aetiology of the Project

For some time I have been working with shadows – jointed torn-paper figures either as static collages, or moved progressively to make animated films of crude processions. These figures come from theatre projects with Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company – in which these shadow figures were part of the vocabulary of the screen projection integral to the plays and operas.

Coming from the theatre projects and the films I made a series of small bronze figures; improvised either from torn paper or from altered found objects (a pair of pliers with a paper head; the stride of the legs given in the movement of the pliers handles).

The range of figures possible, the lightness and speed with which the procession could be assembled, gave rise to the idea of working with a group of actors or singers in a similar way – creating a part-puppet, part-costumed performer.

It would be possible to dress and create a chorus that was neither simply a group of singers nor yet the ‘naturalist crowd of the village square’ of so many opera performances. A chorus in which the anti-naturalism of the music could find a an equivalent in the performers.

An idea for a shadow oratorio or opera started to form. Figures could appear either as projections on a screen or as silhouettes in front of it. Small scale jointed paper figures and full sized costumed / disguised performers could be equalised on the screen. I started to experiment with cardboard and masking tape.

At a workshop with some young artists I had a series of instructive failures in trying to make these enlarged cut-outs eloquent. During the process of failure I lay awake in the middle of the night, unable to get the figures out of my head (an old man – half tree, half man – carrying firewood), nor yet get them to make any sense. ‘You can wait as long as you like, but nothing will come’, was the phrase of the tree-man. It was only when I realised that this refusal – the persistence of these figures and their refusal to make sense – could itself become the subject of the shadow-theatre, that I could fall into an untroubled sleep.

October 2001