Concert Review

Max Black at Lyric Hammersmith 29 October 1999

Heiner Goebbels is a force in contemporary music theatre, a radical thinker whose every production is innovative and unique (see recent reviews in S&H from Edinburgh and Strasbourg). In a pre-performance talk he confessed himself easily bored - for him, writing down ideas takes too long! He prefers to work directly with actors and see what happens. He likes the impurities of sound produced by untrained voices, and believes that the aim towards perfection in classical music training can inhibit communication with listeners. He seeks a "point of innocence".

He explained his preference for uncertainty, leaving the audience unsure what type of show they are seeing, with subjects shifting by chains of associations made visible and audible. He is attracted by a dissonance between what is seen and what is heard. He is not interested in naturalism and has no time for "wonderful stories" which are repetitive, you've heard them many times before.

Max Black is music theatre without a musician! It draws on ideas from Wittgenstein, Valery, and Georg Lichtenberg, who wrote "a physical experiment which bangs is worth more than a silent one". It began with collaboration between Heiner Goebbels and a creator of fireworks shows, working for the first time in theatre. How could they be slowed down, and without too much smoke?

Goebbels' sole actor, Andre Wilms, who had worked with him before, was recognised as having enormous innate musicality and rhythmic potential, which was fully exploited in conjunction with the props manager and sound engineer, developing together an extraordinary sound score which incorporated live electronics and sampling. The stage laboratory becomes like a "noisy kitchen", every object he touches becoming part of the musical score.

Taken at a direct level, Max Black is stunning collaborative theatre, with marvellous realisation in the set and its lighting, sound production and technical wizardry. Its underlying ideas were too complex for me, and the following suggestions are developed from discussions with my wife, Alexa.

The stage becomes 'a laboratory in the mind' of Max Black, characterised as 'a research scientist, failed logician and pyromaniac philosopher'. Through him Goebbels gives aural and visual expression to some absurdities inherent in scientificated frameworks. Attempts to measure quality with quantity are doomed; events waylay and divert efforts to pin down meanings. Grid constructs may burn themselves out or lead into unforeseen areas. Control becomes thwarted or exploded. Meanings can be grasped just beyond full articulation, noted but not fully notated, remaining fluid and unpredictable.

Goebbels explores such thoughts through sound and movement, those of the actor and the objects assembled around him, animated yet inanimate, and through material chemical processes. Ideas emerge amongst these various sign systems. Fire and smoke become metaphors for impermanence of intellectual constructs, a transformation breathtaking in its simplicity and brilliance.

This is a touring show of highest quality, well worth travelling quite a distance to catch. It dazzles whilst you watch, and makes you think hard afterwards.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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