I went to the House but did not enter
Heiner Goebbels's restrained, intensely beautiful meditation on life's passing, and on the inevitable melancholy of ageing, seemed remarkably straightforward, austere almost, when it was first performed by the Hilliard Ensemble, for whom it was conceived, at the Edinburgh festival in 2008. Catching it again now – its London premiere is part of the Barbican's Bite season – reinforces that plainness, but also suggests that the lack of visual trickery signals its significance to Goebbels: that I Went to the House But Did Not Enter is as close to a personal statement as any of his theatre pieces have come so far.
Typically for Goebbels, though, he still filters that personal expression through other sensibilities. Texts in English or English translation by TS Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Kafka and Beckett view the disappointments of getting old from an increasingly foreshortened perspective. If Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is very much a young man's view of what it would be like to be an old man, then Kafka and Blanchot reflect on life's futility from the standpoint of their 30s, leaving the gnomic text of the 78-year-old Beckett – "Fail again. Fail better" – to confront it head on.
Goebbels sets these texts so unselfconsciously and so beautifully that the minutely detailed setting for each of them – the four singers as a team of house clearers, stripping and refurnishing a dining room; then as four lonely men locked in their own suburban routines; and finally reliving memories of happier times in a tacky hotel room – sometimes seems superfluous. One could take the immense refinement of the staging and of the Hilliard's perfectly nuanced performances almost for granted, too, but its total effect remains awfully potent.
The Guardian (GB), 30 April 2010