I Went to the House at the Barbican
Given its premiere at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival and toured worldwide since then, Heiner Goebbels’s extraordinary piece of music theatre will either leave you cold or deeply, almost irrationally, transfixed. For me, the latter.
It’s hard to say anything fresh about the futility of modern life. And Goebbels’s decision to set wilfully elliptical texts written decades ago didn’t seem the most promising route to new revelation. Indeed, the work’s full title — I Went to the House but did not Enter — aptly hints at how the meaning retreats like a mirage as you try to grasp it. Yet I’ve rarely seen anything that melds music, staging, texts and performance so perfectly into a meditation on humanity’s 20th (and 21st) century blues.
The performers are the Hilliard Ensemble — four middle-aged British classical singers of mournful demeanour and breathtaking musicianship. They don’t normally do theatre. As one remarks in the programme: “The simple task of walking on and off a concert platform could sometimes cause us problems.”
But here their very impassiveness becomes an asset. They are “nobodies”, trapped in an existential cul-de-sac to which they respond in several ways. In Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock it’s with dour, determined (but pointless) ritual. These four undertaker-like figures solemnly and silently strip a dull suburban living room of its contents, empty them into a box, then replace them with the contents of another box. In between they sing Eliot’s hymn to stunted suburban lives, with its killer line: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”.
In Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, they are at the windows of a soulless house, where their paranoid ravings intermingle surreally. In Kafka’s Excursion into the Mountains they gather round a bicycle, chirruping like a demented barbershop quartet. Finally comes Samuel Beckett’s late prose-piece Worstward Ho, with them in a dim hotel room, listlessly observing a slide-show of childhood holidays as Beckett’s bleak, clipped text — “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” — slips by like life itself.
It sounds depressing. But to me the dominant aura was elegy tinged with dark farce. And Goebbels’s music — like Anglican psalm chants, but with more dissonant harmonies — discloses these heavily freighted wisps of text with impeccable clarity. Whether you are bewitched, bothered or bewildered, it’s an intriguing 105 minutes.
The Times (GB), 30 April 2010