The cast of Eraritjaritjaka | Theatre Royal

Eraritjaritjaka is one of those shows that’s not really comparable to anything else you’ve seen, or are likely to see. Presented by Sydney Festival 2013 in an “Australian exclusive” (whatever that means, if anything) by Switzerland’s Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne (not to mention a host of co-producers), it’s directed and composed by German avant garde exponent Heiner Goebbels.

If the name Goebbels has been tainted and tarnished by the likes of Joseph, then Heiner restores it to respectability in one fell swoop, in a succinct work informed by impeccable design, exemplified best in a Play School-like set that cunningly hides a veritable wonderland.

Goebbels has a habit of naming his shows esoterically, for the express purpose of arousing interest and curiosity. If you recognise Eraritjaritjaka as “Aboriginal-sounding”, you’re right. It’s an Aranda word and, much like the show itself, one that’s difficult to translate, but lies somewhere in the realm of desperately seeking something valuable that’s been lost. Why Aranda? Well, because the Germans and Swiss, especially, are much more aware of and awake to what Aboriginal culture has to offer than we are, as tragic and unforgivable an irony as that may be.

Eraritjaritjaka is a meditation on the nature, limitations and possibilities of language and its capacity for emotional, intellectual and, dare I say, spiritual expression. At the same time, it delves into the relationship between words and music; seeks the music in words themselves, as well as the eloquence, purity and beauty of silence. The argument is, I think, that words and their arbitrary use, at the very same time as creating something, destroy something else; some pre-existing peace, equilibrium, harmony. The net effect is poetic, in the most vigorous sense.

Swiss-German actor Andre Wilms, speaking French (English surtitles), soon makes you realise extraction of meaning will be difficult, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the use of language is more about poetry and music than precision or definition. It’s a linguistic and musical experiment, that puts Amsterdam’s Mondriaan Quartet front-and-centre. In fact, if you walk in cold, you would probably assume you’d arrived at a chamber concert; one which marries classicism and eclecticism, to innovative and dramatic effect.

But there’s more to it than that: robotics; lighting of surgical precision; illusion, in which Wilms, apparently, disappears; disillusion, in the ventings, ramblings, musings and meditations (if they can be called that) of a man who’s lived every moment of his life consciously, actively, passionately, even fiercely.

He’s not the sort to go gently into that good night. He’s the sort who craves more. More understanding, in particular; in both senses of the word. Who’s lived and breathed Mandela’s exhortation to live large and seeks to pass on this legacy to us. He could be a man passed on, or elderly, taking a journey back to review (his) life and its meaning. I’m not sure he finds what he’s looking for, but he imbues every word and every scene with the ardour of someone much younger.

Frankly, it would be worth attending only for the Mondriaan Quartet (and the music they play, which includes Bach, Shostakovich and Ravel, as well as Bryars, Goebbels and Crumb), or Wilms’ tobacco-stained bass baritone narration (if it can be called that), the richness of which can only be matched by 80% couverture or the quality of his characterisation; upon whose every word you will hang, so beckoning is its and his presence. And, should you find yourself thinking you could be inside the mind of a Shakespeare, such is the restless energy and arrogant pulchritude of the text, you’ll be interested to know it’s inspired by Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti, a fount of artistic power. (There are glances, too, methinks, to Kant, Voltaire and Hegel.)

But there’s more to it than that. There’s a live (and, presumably, recorded) video component to the work that well-and-truly transcends the average, handheld, ad hoc effort, that tends to negate technique. Belgian filmmaker Bruno Deville brings experience, skill and inventiveness to the task, tilting towards the truly cinematic.

Despite Swiss, German, Austrian, Dutch and Belgian associations, there seems to be something quintessentially French about the humour. And there’s something fundamental (archetypal, if you will) about the connections Goebbels makes between performers and audience. It has the evocative impact a fairytale has on a small child. A whole world is created for us, that we inhabit, with all our senses and faculties, for the duration of the work. It’s a pity to have to leave this sensual and intellectual fete behind. It’s an alternative pseudo-reality I, for one, would probably prefer.

Potent, robust. Socratic (more questions than answers, which you’re implored to find for yourself) and spellbinding are words that come easily, even unbidden, to mind. Collectively, the virtuosic pitch of arts deployed become something much, much greater than the sum of their parts and create a transformative episode, as powerful, resonant and influential as the dream that stays with you long after you wake, relentlessly nagging and gnawing at your conscious mind. Eraritjaritjaka has a distinctive shape and occupies a new and different headspace. At the self-same time as subverting, even reinventing, expectations and conventions, it harks back to the origins and raison d’etre of theatre. It moves in its own good time, which has nothing to do with clock-time. It bends the space-time continuum in the very manner Einstein postulated, but at much lower velocity. It moves with its own internal logic, the kind akin to the freewheeling super-rationality of that abstracted dream; a subject on which Canetti has something to offer, inasmuch as, “all the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams”.

Without confiding the jaw-dropping surprise in the centre of this constantly flexing, fluxing piece, suffice to say it not only crashes through the fourth wall, but practically refuses belief in such a notion. Indeed, conventional conceits such as this are irrelevant, in terms of the magic that pertains here: this is theatre that brings with it its own, unprecedented vocabulary. Theatre that pays homage to the essence of the form and of all forms that call themselves arts, or art.

There may me moments when you shift in your seat a little (the Theatre Royal’s imprisoning legroom and stifling aircon, or lacks thereof, will see to that, in any case), when you entertain the possibility of a slight sag, or self-indulgent inscrutability. Don’t look for narrative. Go with it and you’ll be transported on a flying carpet, held aloft by buoyant, beautiful and challenging ideas, word-pictures and sonority. It bears, after all, the surreptitious subtitle Musee des Phrases (Museum of Phrases). Look to this, as the key to unlocking your fullest enjoyment of Eraritjaritjaka.

Eraritjaritjaka. Yearning for, desperately seeking something valuable lost. It doesn’t mean we’ll find it. But we have to keep looking. Eraritjaritjaka would have us do just that.

The details: Eraritjaritjaka played the Theatre Royal as part of the Sydney Festival on January 9-13.