When pianos attack
What if actors stood aside and let the props steal the show? Kate Connolly on a bizarre collision of music and theatre
In the latest production by Frankfurt composer Heiner Goebbels, the two black-clad stagehands are the only humans you ever see. At a performance I saw in Munich, they appear only at the very start, to sprinkle a sugar-like substance around the stage through a stretcher-shaped sieve. Tanks full of green liquid are then emptied out, as five inverted grand pianos, operated by remote control, start to play against a backdrop of gnarled trees.
The pianos quickly take on the role of actors. At the end of the 80-minute mix of light, sound and text - intertwined with pop, jazz, classical music and incantations - they even move towards the audience on runners, threateningly, like an army on the march. They cross over steaming pools of water, their mechanical insides sizzling as they stand like prima donnas on the edge of the stage. Are they waiting for us to clap? It is something of a relief when Goebbels appears to take a bow.
His show, Stifter's Dinge (Stifter's Things), a collaboration with the British group Artangel, is based on the vivid landscape descriptions of the heavygoing early 19th-century Austrian Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter. The experimental show has been called many things - a sculptural installation, a performative composition, a piano piece without pianists, a play without players, a no-man show. Its attention is on the objects that would usually form the background, the props or parts of the set. Under the direction of Goebbels, one of the world's leading exponents of contemporary music and theatre, it is the mechanics of the production that become the work's focus. "Normally, theatre mirrors that which we already know," Goebbels says. "But I think that's boring. For hundreds of years, the actors have been centre stage. But we forget there are other things that also have a meaning."
All the sounds heard on stage are live: the pianos, the bubble-wrap fly swat that taps against a pipe opening, rain falling on plastic, two stones scraping against each other. "I'm fascinated by different qualities of sound," says the 55-year-old composer. "By the life that's contained in a stone, water, or metal." But it's wrong, Goebbels says, to think of the piece as a no-man show. "When people say there are no humans in the performance, they're mistaken. It's people that are at its centre - namely the audience, who are empowered by it."
Goebbels is bringing his new work to Britain next month, courtesy of the arts organisation Artangel, with whom he has collaborated for a decade. Stifter's Dinge will be performed in one of the capital's hidden and most exciting new spaces: the cavernous underground interior P3, beneath the University of Westminster, a place where engineers used to test the resistance of motorway concrete.
"It's an unbelievable space, deep underground beneath a technical university, which I find a very nice metaphor," says Goebbels, who likens the venue to the Arctic "doomsday vault" that will preserve 3m seed varieties in case of a global catastrophe - a nuclear winter, say, or an asteroid impact. "I hope something of this quality is to be found in my work," he says. "Going into an underground bunker in order to experience nature."
With its ominous steaming waters, its portrayals of dramatic weather, the absence of people, and a voiced Stifter description of melting icicles bombarding a sledging expedition, it is easy to see the work as a comment on the threat of environmental disaster. "Time has changed," the voice of Malcolm X booms across the set at one point. But Goebbels' vision is not wholly pessimistic, at least not according to a group of Brazilian policemen who saw the show in Munich. "When they emerged from the theatre," says Goebbels, "they said the work was clearly about the disastrous poisoning of the Amazonian river and forests, but that there was still hope. I found it a wonderful characterisation, because the piece is open to interpretation."
Over three decades, Goebbels has slid between different musical and artistic conventions, including a stint during the 1970s in the So-Called Left-Radical Brass Band, which played a role in the protest movement of the day and helped boost the political power of music. It also taught Goebbels about the creative power of the collective, something that pervades his work.
"It was rather utopian what we did," he says, "but it's something I still return to: being open to other people's ideas and accepting that not all the ideas have to come from me. The result is absolute continuity between my work then and now. That's not something everyone is able to say."
The Guardian (GB), 27 March 2008