Stifters Dinge at the Melbourne International Arts Festival

Stifter’s Dinge, created by Heiner Goebbels and presented at the CUB Malthouse as part of The 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival, is the result of what happens when a composer takes over the theatre. It is a theatrical piece without actors, a composition without musicians, an art installation that sits outside of a gallery and a musical without songs. Goebbels has left many of the familiar and expected elements of theatre out of the work to create a unique aesthetic that presents the audience with a new way to watch and relate to the stage.
As we took our seats, stagehands were putting finishing touches to the set, which seemed as if it was still warming up, like a steam train not quite ready to leave the station. The men remained in view after the show had begun, assisting the set to come to life. And that it did. The star of the show, the set, slowly began to reveal it’s character after the men had quietly disappeared into the wings. Its centrepiece was a group of five pianos mounted at the back of the stage with their inner workings exposed and set amongst lifeless trees and noise making machines. The instruments look and sound at times menacing and at others, tender and vulnerable. They provided much of the musical sound track for the show.
The show also used elements of water and light, shadow work, sound scapes generated by mechanical instruments as well as recorded sound sources.
The human element was provided by recorded voices reading stories from 19th century writer, Adalbert Stifter, and an interview with Claude Levy Strauss.
These stories spoke of a natural world that is passing. They challenged us to think about how the way we once related to this world has changed.
All the while we sit and watch the mechanical world of the stage attempting to replicate this natural, passing world. The juxtaposition raised questions about human intervention and invention. The mechanical world of the set revealed it’s own beauty as it attempted to describe the beauty of the outside world. As we watched, seemingly random events began to take on a narrative shape. From our seats, we journeyed through forests of shadows, sat by pools in the desert as a disembodied voice wailed from a distance, and we longed to skate across the clear ice of a winter’s day. For just over an hour we listened and watched and wished to be part of the world on stage.
Stifter’s Dinge is a surprising work. It is at once delightful and perplexing. There were moments where I drifted and wished the work over, and moments where I wished it would never end. The mechanics of the set were outstanding and the other stars of the show, the technical staff, displayed a mastery of the set choreography that should be applauded - they made it dance. The Melbourne Festival ought to be congratulated for bringing a work of such imagination and challenge to Melbourne.

Helen Begley
Artshub - The Australian Arts Portal (AU), 12 October 2010