Sitting in the front stalls of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Heiner Goebbels appears thoroughly relaxed.
Which, considering the German director, composer and theatre maker’s latest piece of large scale music theatre collage, I Went To The House But Did Not Enter, is just two days away from its world premiere, is perhaps surprising. This is especially the case given the technical complexities of previous works which have graced Edinburgh such as Hashirigaki and Eraritjaritjaka. The latter of these even involved a live video feed which followed the piece’s main performer to a flat on Edinburgh’s south side before pulling off a startling theatrical sleight-of-hand that several years on still isn’t easy to de-code.
Whether anything quite as remarkable will steal the show in this new work remains to be seen. What is already clear, however, is that the presence of The Hilliard Ensemble will add choral gravitas to a work for which the only certainty will, on Goebbels’ track record, be its unpredictability.
Indeed, it was The Hilliard’s involvement in the Swiss-based Theatre Vidy-Lausanne co-production with Edinburgh International Festival and a welter of international partners which first attracted Goebbels to a co-commission by he might not have otherwise embraced.
“I’ve refused a lot of opera commissions I’ve been offered over the years,” says Goebbels, whose production is billed as ‘a staged concert in three tableaux.’ “But this one I said yes to straight away. I’m very sceptical towards conventional opera expression, about the way they move and the way they sing with this classical intensity. What I love about the Hilliard Ensemble is that their intensity somehow grows by an absence of what you normally expect. Normally you expect people to open their mouths and scream, but there is nothing like that with the Hilliard. Because they specialise in mediaeval music, they hardly open their mouths, and have a very discrete appearance. So I was very confident I could make something special with that sense of discretion, even though I didn’t know how it would end up.”
With this starting point, Goebbels developed I Went To The House But Did Not Enter over three rehearsal periods, gradually utilising seemingly disparate texts which each look at notions of failure from a first-person perspective. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is the most familiar of these, with Samuel Beckett’s final work, Worstward Ho adding a similarly rhythmic linguistic propulsion. Least known of the three is The Madness Of The Day by French writer Maurice Blanchot, while a fourth text, Franz Kafka’s short story, Excursion Into The Mountains, is also in there.
Given such material to play with, one could be forgiven for expecting some bleak litany of despair. In Goebbels’ hands, however, one suspects it may be oddly life-affirming.
“These texts work well with this almost subversive discreteness of the Hilliard,” Goebbels points out. “All three texts have something in common, in that they’re all incredibly creative and important steps in the development of literature. At the same time, they’re all about failure. That could be quite a negative thing, but I hope it’s entertaining, mesmerising and touching.”
Philosophically, I Went To The House But did Not Enter looks closely at the naked ‘I.’
“It is a reflection on how you can say the word ‘I’, and how conscious you can be about yourself,” Goebbels says. “All the doubts about that question are beautifully developed by T.S. Eliot in The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock, which definitely doesn’t work as a love song, but which has the first line, ‘Let us go then, you and I,’ and you have the feeling as it goes on that this guy will never be able to leave his flat. Also, with all of the texts, you never really know who’s speaking. Is it yourself? Is it an idea of yourself that’s no longer there? Every sentence you’re promised something, but at the end you end up with nothing. Even then, this promise keeps you going, and is very seductive. It gives you new ideas and inspirations which, while the story deals with failure, opens a space that is incredibly creative for the listener. There’s a real utopian promise there, especially as the Hiliard Ensemble sing it.”
Goebbels is no stranger to mixing and matching such literary and musical icons. Hashirigaki, for instance, melded together a trio of Beach Boys songs with texts derived from work by Gertrude Stein.
“The difference,” Goebbels admits, “is that in Hashirigaki I didn’t compose much of the music. Here I‘ve composed everything, and all three parts are completely different. It’s like in a dance piece, in which each part is sort f nothing to do with each other, yet there’s still some kind of strong link or a sub-stream underneath which connects them They all, though, have a separate aesthetic, both musically and theatrically. Each composition has been driven by the architecture of the music, melody and rhythm of each text, which has made them all completely different. I don’t superimpose things on it. It’s a huge homage to these very important writers. What’s exciting for me, for the Hilliard Ensemble and for the audience, is that we’ve never worked in this way before. The Hilliard Ensemble go way beyond what they do with mediaeval music. I think people will be surprised, because I think it’s important to go beyond peoples preconceptions and break things up. The truth comes in the interruptions. We perceive things most strongly when things clash. Like Brecht, I believe in interruption.”
I Went To The House But Did Not Enter, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Thursday-Saturday
The Herald, August 27th 2008