Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) is hardly known in the English-speaking world, but in Germany his novels and stories are prized for their descriptions of the natural world, which are almost painterly in their vividness and detail, like the literary equivalent of Caspar David Friedrich's canvases. Stifter's writing is the starting point for Heiner Goebbels' latest theatre piece, in many ways his most extraordinary so far. It is being presented in the cavernous space of P3, now part of the University of Westminster, which was built in the 1960s to test materials for motorway construction and the Channel Tunnel.
That industrial background is very apt for Stifter's Dinge (Stifter's Things). Goebbels' work seems to be about ecological catastrophe - Stifter has been hailed as an early green prophet of doom - and the way industrial processes encroach upon and despoil the natural world that the writer described so meticulously. Goebbels describes it as a "composition for five pianos with no pianists, a performance without performers", but it is also an installation of huge technological intricacy. There are visual projections of paintings by Van Ruisdael and Uccello, and pre-recorded elements: a typically eclectic Goebbels collection that includes readings from Stifter's novels, songs from Papua New Guinea and South America, and interviews with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Malcolm X, mixed with bass-heavy rock riffs.
Most of all, there is the "set": five pianos mounted like a wall, which move with menacing slowness over pools of water. The digitally controlled keyboards play individually (Bach's slow Italian Concerto is heard at one point) but they finally join together in a manic toccata at the climax, before receding to leave the pools bubbling and polluted. Totally mesmerising.
The Guardian (GB), 19 April 2008