The first scene was a treatment of the T.S. Eliot work The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; the four voices singing in close harmonies with occasional solo sections. The muted pastel greys of the set were accentuated with lighting designs by Klaus Grunberg*, Goebbel’s set and lighting designer. The lighting changed so gradually it almost went unnoticed until a moment when it appears the entire set had changed in composition without any changes to props or performers. This use of one of the often unexploited elements of theatre is typical of Goebbels fanatic attention to detail that permeates all of his work.
Another of these elements is the deliberate decision to allow the audience witness set changes. Following the first scene the curtain was lowered and immediately raised again to reveal the stagehands rolling in the colossal faux house used for the next scene. Apart from the sheer size of the sets, the incorporation of the stagehands and their vocal calls to each other when moving the set was striking and felt like a continuation of the Hilliard’s performance. Allowing the audience access into the workings behind the scenes of the production perfectly reflected the access granted into the mind of a troubled individual through Goebbel’s choice of texts and the vocal scoring.
The move in texts from Eliot to Blanchot was firmly established by both the visual change in set and the change in behaviour of the ensemble. The Blanchot’s text The Madness of the Day (from which comes the title line “I went to the house but did not enter”) is unsettling in its exploration of the inner workings of the mind of a temporarily blinded man. The ensemble spoke the words of this text, often overlapping and speaking over each other, all seemingly oblivious to the distress of the other characters while speaking directly to them. There were occasional lighter moments in the scene – banging on the ceiling with a broom to bring a halt to the noise upstairs – which only served to highlight the anxious despair present in the text.
Kafka’s Excursion into the Mountains provides a short lighter break between scenes, although the Sound-of-Music-like sweeping melodic line “It’s a wonder that we don’t burst into song” belies the emptiness behind the notion of an excursion with a “pack of nobodies”.
While the Eliot text explores the seemingly calm exterior, the Blanchot delves into the frantic internal chaos which eventually resolves into Beckett’s Worstward Ho. This is the most inaccessible of the four texts featuring fragmentation and repetition of words and phrases. This was beautifully considered by Goebbels with the vocal part focusing on short phrases of repeated rhythms in very close intervals. Unlike the other three texts there were no subtitles for Worstward Ho which allowed the audience to focus their entire attention on the voices. The definition of characters in the final scene is complex as the text. Initially it seemed as though the four performers were each one separate aspect in one character’s day but their eventual interaction with each other complicated that version of events. This intelligent handling of Beckett’s text brought the audience to the edge of the character’s (be it one character or four) internal struggle and left the performance unresolved and the audience with the words “Fail Again. Fail better”, “Fail worse again”.
Although this is only my second time seeing a Goebbels production live (I was fortunate enough to catch Stifters Dinge in 2008) this production was typical of Goebbels work. His combination of many elements is almost overwhelming – lighting, sound, set design and stage management. It’s a huge shame the production is not coming to Ireland but there are still dates remaining in Europe and I would urge everyone to see one of the seminal works of 21st century contemporary theatre during its first run.
Thursday was the 8th night of a run of ten performances in Theatre Vidy, one of the coproducers in the production. Given the tendency towards lighter audiences for contemporary music productions in Ireland I was amazed to discover an almost full 400 seat theatre for this challenging work. I was informed that this was the case for every night of the ten night run despite the fact that Lausanne is a city of only approx 130,000 people. I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone in the theatre on my short trip but that would be a very interesting conversation on audience development.
The performance was a departure for the Hilliard Ensemble who are unused to movement during performance, however Goebbels worked in collaboration with the ensemble to develop the work and the results were obvious. The comfort with which they walked through the visually striking set was apparent from the outset. (Read their take on the complexities of this new experience here.)