Russian doll system

A play by Heiner Goebbels in Lausanne, based on texts by Canetti
Enigmas are sometimes enlightening, even if they cannot be resolved. Working around the secret involves placing, replacing and displacing verbal and musical signs until they reveal their energy. Discoveries are born of recomposed instants, not from a broad meaning that has undergone no change. Heiner Goebbels’ new musical play, created at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, confirms this vision through its unpronounceable title: Erarjaritjaka. This is not a magic spell but an expression used by Australian Aborigines which, according to the definition given by Elias Canetti himself in the Necklace of Flies(1992) describes the obsessional longing for something that has been lost: a state of affliction or melancholy – we are drawn into this at once by the Chostakovitch string quartet, interpreted contemplatively by the Mondriaan Quartet from Amsterdam. A dark-suited figure moves nearer on a leaf of white light – or is it the surface of a mirror, on which steps, words, sounds will begin to reverberate? His shadow revolves like a pendulum, vibrates with the music, alternately with and against the rhythm. Light, body and voice harmonize to the sound of the instruments. This production (scenecraft: Klaus Grünberg) is striking in the strict geometry of lines, a rigorous topography in which the choreography of contrasts alone gives birth to the movement: black and white, positive and negative, up and down: polarities borne by the long breath of the sound.
This most recent collaboration with the Alsatian actor André Wilms may be fatal to what is known as modernity, to the order which determines and penetrates all things. While Wilms acts the orchestra conductor, the demagogue, the animal tamer, passages taken from Mass and Power by Canetti comment on these tyrannical laws and scores, all of which stem from ‘the Russian doll system of the secret’. The musicians and the beast – a robot born of the improbable union between a cannon and a baboon – obey, but not for long. The Conductor of words soon finds himself alone facing empty chairs and imaginary sounds. All that remains are ‘those signs scratched on yellowish paper’.
It is at this point that the most surprising part of the play begins: Goebbels knocks down the walls, removes his actor from the stage and projects him into a series of superimposed levels which echo each other. Wilms takes his hat and coat and leaves the theatre. Change of perspective: a curtain opens and the house, until now present on the stage in miniature, becomes life-size. First as a two-dimensional back cloth onto which the action is projected, and then as a giant Advent calendar, with windows opening gradually, revealing the different rooms and the cameraman within (live video: Bruno Deville). His vision draws us behind the façade.
We enter a haunted house, a parallel universe imbibed with melancholy which is, in fact, the apartment of a character based on the sinologist Kien, the booklover from Canetti’s novel Auto-da-fé. The camera wreaks havoc with this daily life and all its minutely orchestrated meanness, its banal acts and private movements, deforming it into something monstrous. On the desk, the pencils measure the small space they are left, a typewriter stutters and, in the kitchen, the noise of the whisk and the pepper mill increase in volume. The solitary diner devours his own tracks, with no appetite but down to the last crumb. Windows open and the scene splits, women’s and children’s voices haunt the house: we are at the heart of the film, surrounded by associations of images and words, dazed by collages of text and music organized in counterpoints. But where are we really? Have we been transported to the hallucinated hell of a Jean Cocteau, or is it the grotesque meticulousness à la Jacques Tati which gives each gesture its worrying distance?
From stage to film, from film to stage: characters, voices and sounds change place and vector as if their initial aim was to transgress limts. And it all takes place so lightly with an almost somnambulistic virtuosity, nothing is predictable but, nevertheless, it is all entirely convincing. If the word ‘genius’ did not have such a pompous connotations, it would, with this production, be more than ever appropriate.

Sabine Haupt
Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH), 23 August 2004