The restless theatrical innovator Heiner Goebbels talks to Ivan Hewett about his strange new show, which has its world premiere
It's late afternoon in the elegant, sleepy Swiss city of Lausanne. The rain is lashing down, and at the little Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne - the nursing ground of many a Heiner Goebbels production - the magnificent view of the French Alps across Lake Geneva has vanished behind grey clouds.
Inside the theatre, the afternoon rehearsal is about to begin, and there's a polyglot buzz of voices: French from the stage crew fixing the lighting, English from the performers on stage, German from the control desk at the back.
"I want to start," a plaintive voice says from behind me; it comes from the stocky figure of Heiner Goebbels, looking like a smiling white-haired cherub, gesturing with amused helplessness at the mêlée all around him. Eventually the stage clears, darkness falls, and the curtain rises on four male figures in hats and suits.
It would be a perfect tableau of 1930s bourgeois respectability, if it weren't for the bizarre text they recite, and the surreal presence of a bicycle. The strange stillness of the scene, the dream-like clarity, the mix of comedy and menace in their words all make for an uncanny atmosphere. And then without warning the four of them break into song.
If you didn't know that the four actors on stage were actually the four singers of the renowned Hilliard Ensemble, that sudden rush of perfect harmony would be a shock. Even if you did know, it would still be a shock, because something familiar is appearing in such a strange context.
That ambiguity is central to Heiner Goebbels's new music-theatre piece, with music, movement, stage-sets and projected images all conceived by Goebbels himself. I Went to the House But Did Not Enter receives its world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival later this month. The scene I saw with the bicycle will be part of it - possibly.
"It's another text I found, by Kafka," explains Goebbels, "and I might put it into the second part. I'm still looking for a different sort of rhythm here. But I'm not sure."
So, with only two weeks to go, Goebbels is still musing about whether to include a whole scene. It's a situation that could induce mild panic, but Goebbels seems immune to anxiety. Nothing throws him, not even my appearance, which has clearly slipped his mind.
"I wonder why I invited you?" he says. "I normally don't allow anyone to see my rehearsals." But he asks the question in a musing way, as if it were an interesting philosophical puzzle.
Goebbels's ability to put everyone around him at ease has been much needed in this production, which on the face of it seems an outlandish yoking together of two worlds with nothing in common.
On the one hand, there's the world's foremost vocal quartet, with a sound exquisitely attuned to Renaissance music but increasingly attractive to living composers and jazz musicians such as Jan Garbarek; and on the other, one of the great theatrical innovators of our time, a man who combines music, movement, video and texts in a way that defies narrative logic but creates a mysterious aesthetic coherence.
How did it come about? "We knew Heiner was interested in our work," says countertenor David James, the joking extrovert of the four.
"He came to hear us in Porto. The funny thing was he vanished afterwards without even saying hello! Then we heard nothing for months, but eventually we had a meeting where he told us what he had in mind, and we agreed to give it a try."
In concert, the Hilliard Ensemble have a modest, almost monk-like demeanour. This suits the otherworldly purity of their sound, but isn't it a handicap in a theatrical context?
"No, I love it!" says Goebbels. "That's why I wanted to work with them. I don't ask them to create characters, and one of the things in theatre I want to avoid is the identification of actors and a role. It allows a really productive imaginative space to open up between them and us.
For me it's much more fruitful than an actor who wants to persuade you he is Hamlet. And this also fits in with the texts I have chosen, which are all to do with doubts and questioning about identity."
But how far should doubt go? What if people start to think the four men on stage aren't really the Hilliard Ensemble at all? Goebbels's eyes light up. "That's a wonderful idea! Maybe I should do it with understudies, and get them to mime to playback," he laughs.
Goebbels's work is mirrored in his life. Like his theatre pieces, it can't be told as a straightforward narrative; it's more like a series of leaps from one identity to another. He's a declared sceptic about political art, who nevertheless founded the "so-called Radical Left Wind Orchestra" in the Seventies.
He's a proper German intellectual, who quotes Adorno and Habermas, but he's also a hands-on practitioner. He's been a rock musician but is also a trained classical composer. He's a man suspicious of the theatre who's now running a theatre institute at a German university.
A consequence of this is that he can never treat one art in isolation. "When I'm writing music," he says, "I want it to have a complex effect, but not by writing complex things with lots of counterpoint.
For me the counterpoint is between the music and the other elements. So when I'm composing I have to think about the total effect, not just the music."
Another consequence is that Goebbels can never allow himself to rest easy. "There's a tendency in theatre and also theatre education to rely on technical know-how, a sense of 'we know how to do this'.
But I don't know how to do it! I think theatre needs to regain its status as an artwork, instead of being a way of presenting fixed narratives with a definable message. It should be able to give you something completely marvellous and completely inexplicable."
The Telegraph (GB), August 2008