Conception, music and direction by Heiner Goebbels
Parade Theatre, January 8
What a thrilling way to light the fuse of the Sydney Festival: a piece that deifies surprise, scoffs at expectation, and merges most art-forms and emotions. Much art seeks to tie life down. Heiner Goebbels undoes the knots and watches it take flight.
In Hashirigaki - Japanese for flowing writing, or rushing - the German composer/conceptualist/director has borrowed from such unlikely bedmates as Gertrude Stein's eccentric novel The Making of Americans (1925), the Beach Boys' innovative 1966 album Pet Sounds and Japanese folk music. Add a dazzling and surreal command of movement, sound, lighting, props and cyclorama projections and you have an entertainment like no other.
The main fuel is the spiralling repetitions of Stein's dense, often difficult-to-read text. Ideas, for Stein, were fluid rather than contained, so that instead of trying to narrate and depict, she used words to conjure the ephemeral nature of thought and being. While, on the page, this may stretch many readers' patience, it was amazingly invigorated by the witty and poetic articulation of Charlotte Engelkes, a very tall Swede, Marie Goyette, a medium-sized French Canadian, and Yumiko Tanaka, a very petite Japanese. The three women are variously actors, comediennes, mime artists, musicians and singers.
Stein's words - like those of the Beach Boys - wear new clothes via the assorted accents, and the varying sizes of the performers is a source of visual incongruity and humour, just as it once was for John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on television's The Frost Report.
The humour is the main surprise in a show that created expectations of arty visual treats - although wondrous examples of these exist, too. Above all, Stein's words become great comic labyrinths thanks to the deft timing and sometimes deadpan, sometimes light-hearted delivery of Engelkes and Goyette.
The piece itself evolves like a Stein spiel, with repetitions, evolutions and unexpected jumps. There are no monumental theatrical devices, just beautifully simple ideas and effects. A gong can become the wheel of a car; a bell can become a hot-air balloon; a Beach Boys pop song can unravel into a desperately sad piece of Japanese music (played by Tanaka), or the Japanese music can give way to Engelkes creating high comedy with that earliest of electronic instruments, the theremin, which generates pitch from the player's movements between two aerials.
Goebbels may strive to generate the unexpected from the collision of his diverse sources, but links are to be found if you look for them.
The closing I Just Wasn't Made For These Times epitomises the strange melancholy that haunts the show amid the wackiness, wit and wonder.
The Sydney Morning Herald (AU), 10 January 2004