Sarah Crompton reviews I Went to the House But Did Not Enter at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Many words have been used to describe Heiner Goebbels: classical composer, theatre director, rock musician, innovator, intellectual, poseur. But watching his new piece at the Edinburgh Festival, it strikes me that the most accurate is magician.
Goebbels's trick is to bring together disparate elements and meld them into a unique and distinctive whole.
In I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, the ingredients are four texts by TS Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett and the four singers of the Hilliard Ensemble: David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones.
They perform three staged tableaux, contrasting scenes that together create a sense of drift and disillusion, of failure, and impending death.
Goebbels and his designer Klaus Grünberg have given each act in this musical drama its own richly imagined setting, thus creating a mood that permeates each piece.
So Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" takes place in a monochrome dining room, with a loud clock ticking and thin light drifting through a central window.
In their hats and overcoats, the singers look like something out of Magritte as they carefully pack away the table with its tea cups, the dog portraits, the drab curtains.
Then they reassemble the place in reverse, changing white into black. All the while they sing the mournful tale of a man who "measures out his life in coffee spoons" in a plangent setting, like priests performing some ceremony of regret, or a Glee Club plunged into melancholy.
That man who "should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across floors of silent seas" is recalled in the next section by Blanchot, who talks of walking "through streets like a crab."
Here the setting recalls a photograph by Thomas Demand. A blank suburban house pinions within its shuttered windows, four lonely men talking of things they did not do, the house they did not enter.
The noise of traffic, of birds, and one unexplained explosion, punctuates their strange reminiscences. The stilted nature of the performers, who find speaking less eloquent than song, adds to the aura of suburban dislocation.
A song made from Kafka's unsettling description of a trip to the mountains with "a pack of nobodies" ends the act on an upbeat note.
The closing scene is a haunting, trance-like vision of Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho.
In a shadowy hotel room, the men, looking like Edward Hopper's isolated travellers, gaze out of the window - or gather around a slide show of childhood photographs without really looking at it.
Beckett's mysterious monologue, which seems to be made from the gaps within language itself, becomes in Goebbels' imagination a kind of incantation of loss.
The whole thing is staggeringly beautiful but chilly. This is theatre as an intellectual discourse: powerful but almost too pure.
Yet like Stifter's Dinge, the work Goebbels showed in London earlier in the year, it lingers in the mind, casting its spell long after its close.
The Telegraph (GB), 1 September 2008