Heiner Goebbels's music theatre is a world of literary allusion, knowing intellectualism and avant-garde glamour. His latest project, Eraritjaritjaka: Musée des Phrases, is a collaboration with the actor André Wilms and the Mondriaan string quartet. Its fusion of 20th-century string quartets with film, speech and electronics creates a multi-faceted dramatisation of one man's quest to comprehend the world.
The texts, spoken by Wilms in French, were a sequence of dazzlingly imaginative aphorisms by Elias Canetti. In one scene, Wilms indulged in a miniaturist fantasy in which people became smaller and less important as they aged; in another, he was confronted by a mysterious, animatronic robot - the catalyst for a meditation on the nature of animals and the psychology of looking at another living being.
In a brilliant set piece, Wilms described the role of the orchestral conductor as an embryonic despotism, and his ever-changing relationship with the Mondriaan players became the theatrical embodiment of Canetti's elliptical, subversive texts. Movements from George Crumb's acerbic Black Angels expressed Wilms's alienation as he sat alone writing. He mused on society's obsession with food to the accompaniment of Gavin Bryars's elegiac First String Quartet.
But the theatrical coup of the staging was its use of video. Followed and filmed by a cameraman, Wilms left the theatre, climbed into a taxi and was taken home. Projected on to the set in the theatre, he continued his Canetti-inspired monologue while preparing an omelette in perfect synchronisation with the quartet's performance of the scherzo from Ravel's String Quartet. The secret behind this mind-boggling theatrical precision was revealed towards the end of the performance, when the cut-out house on the stage was unmasked as the house shown in the film.
For all its inventive theatre and Wilms's virtuosic performance, there was something glib and hermetic about Eraritjaritjaka. Despite the range of references plundered by Goebbels, the staging never achieved a sense of emotional or expressive depth, only a playful but self-conscious revelling in its own literary cleverness and visual sophistication.
The Guardian (GB), 30 August 2004