Westpac St James, Wellington

24/02/2006 - 26/02/2006

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Words from writings by Elias Canetti
Director Heiner Gobbels (Germany)

The hit of the 2004 Edinburgh Festival, Eraritjaritjaka is an enigmatic and magical piece of European theatre from one of Germany’s leading directors, Heiner Gobbels.

In an exquisite exploration of identity and self, artificiality and reality, Gobbels layers words, images and music to manipulate the audience’s experience of time and space.

design by Klaus Grünberg
sound design by Willi Bopps
music performed by the Mondriaan Quartet
video camera operated by Bruno Deville

with André Wilms

Music , Theatre , Solo ,

1 hr 25 min, no interval

Easier to admire than like

Review by Matthew Wagner 05th Mar 2006

A man lies on a nearly bare stage, his head resting uncomfortably against a small, simple, square model of a house; he speaks in French, he words are digitally translated into English subtitles, and he is accompanied on stage by the Amsterdam-based Mondriaan String Quartet.  The New Zealand International Arts Festival is off and running at full speed, and one of its earliest offerings is Eraritjaritjaka, the Aboriginal name for German director Heiner Goebbels’ latest production.   

The protagonist, engagingly played by Andre Wilms, is an unnamed character who struggles against being trapped inside his own head, left only with words, and having nothing like the music we are all hearing to offer him solace.  He is alone on stage, even though he is physically in the company of the four musicians, and he is alone when we see him – through the magic of live video feed – leave the stage and go ‘home’.  He speaks almost constantly, but like his body, his words (taken from texts by Elias Canetti) eventually become neither here nor there; they ultimately have a meaningless, if occasionally poetic, quality about them.   

The structure of the play does not rely on narrative, and while there is a palpable struggle, at the end of the play we uncertain as to its outcome.  The music, more than anything else, gives shape to and drives the play.  As a counterpoint to the musical structure, Klaus Grünberg’s design provides a home base, as it were – the image of stability.  Grünberg and Goebbels employ a patently Jungian framework, symbolizing the mind in the image of the house, and using the simplicity of that image to create the set.  The upstage wall is a large white sketch of a two-level house with four windows, upon which is projected, usually, Wilms’ (absent) figure; we thus watch him ‘at’ home, ‘on’ his home.  In the play’s final images, we see Wilms revealed through the windows of the upstage wall, seated in his house with the musicians, and the interior of this house is projected upon the set.  Wilms’ character is at once present and absent; inside, outside, and upon the house; escaping his mind and trapped by it.  

This is, I think, a production that is easier to admire than to like. I appreciate the precision and the technological expertise involved; I am in awe of the sheer talent of the Mondriaan Quartet, of Wilms’ stage presence, and of Goebbels’ clarity of vision.  And my own mind is stimulated by the ideas that Goebbels pursues with this production.  But for all that, Eraritjaritjaka is less viscerally moving than I had hoped it would be.  It provides a smart, sharp, and challenging opening to the Arts Festival, but (as is perhaps appropriate to the themes of the play), I felt finally like the world of Goebbels created kept me trapped inside my own head.  As I left the production, I felt driven by it to get out of my head, to re-connect with the corporeal things of the world; I headed across the street to a Fringe Festival production entitled Heavenly Burlesque Cabaret and Party, thinking that between the two productions, Wellington during Festival time is a very good place to be.


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Audience abuzz

Review by John Smythe 01st Mar 2006

German director Heiner Gobbels’ Eraritjaritjaka is based on texts by Nobel Prize winner for Literature Elias Canetti. Bulgaria-born, Vienna-raised, Paris then London-domiciled, Canetti purloined the title from Arunta, an Australian Aboriginal dialect. It means, ‘Full of desire for something lost.’

Its brief Opera House season soon over (just 4 performances in the first 3 days), Eraritjaritjaka remains in the memory as prime Festival fare. We saw it from three rows back in the Gods. These cheaper seats turned out to be much better than premium seats in the stalls because the English surtitles for the welter of amplified musings uttered in French by the sole actor, André Wilms, were at our eye-level. We also had an excellent view of the lighting effects on the stage. And the acoustics for the sublime Mondriaan Quartet were faultless. (I understand some stall-dwellers gave up trying to keep place with the less well-positioned translations, and they didn’t know what they were missing when it came to the bright white, hard-edged and shape-shifting floor, or the aerial suburban night-scape.)

Such verbal images as families like bowling pins taking each other down, giving words new dangers with music, and music allowing words to swim rather than walk – "I mistrust their flowing," the man frets – set the themes and enrich the show when easily read. The words and initially minimal action are powerfully supported by the quartet’s live renditions of Bach, Bryars, Crumb, Lobanov, Mossolov, Ravel, Shostakovich and Gobbels himself, and Klaus Grunberg’s set and lighting design and Willi Bopp’s visceral sound design.

A tiny box-model house takes centre stage, becomes a headrest for the busy-brained man, then looms large, life-sized, with one wall and four double windows facing from the back of the stage. The irrepressible flow of spoken words, on words and sentences, music, man watching man, comes to a crescendo in an impassioned rhetorical/oratorical allegory about a conductor’s power, the silence of the audience, the obedience of the orchestra … "He is the living embodiment of the law – both positive and negative. The ruler of the world."

But what gets the audience really excited is the man’s abrupt departure from the theatre, followed by a video camera (operated by Bruno Deville). His journey through the foyer, into the street, across the road and through Te Aro Park into a waiting taxi which drives him through familiar streets, as he continues to verbalise his thoughts, is clearly (it seems) transmitted live, projected onto the visible wall of the house.

The man leaves the car, walks into his local Cuba Street dairy for a bottle of water, enters a gateway, climbs outdoor steps to an apartment and enters. Inside he picks up mail and that day’s paper (or in our case, the Sunday Star Times), tears off a calendar pad to reveal today’s date and goes into the kitchen where a wall clock shows the present time. Still-talking and visible via the projection (the wonders of modern technology!), the man opens his mail, writes at his desk and performs domestic tasks including cooking himself an omelette and eating it.

When he answers the door to an unseen boy, also French, the film becomes black-and-white and is clearly shot at a different time. Their exchange reveals the man may once have been a professor, he gets confused as to his identity and his eccentricities are well-known within his immediate community. It’s when – restored to full colour – the man takes his washing upstairs, flicks on a TV and channel hops around the current schedule of programmes while folding his laundry, that we suddenly see him, and the string quartet, through the windows in the on-stage house.

Afterwards it is the mystery of how this was achieved that has the audience abuzz. Theories abound. And on the day we we’re there, Murray Lynch (until recently the director of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre) is to be found in the foyer relating his increasing astonishment at watching the man approach, and apparently enter, his – that is Murray’s – apartment! It turns out Festival Director Carla van Zon and her husband are Murray’s landlords. And the interior we’ve seen via video is nothing like Murray’s apartment.

Having wrestled with the implications of that and deduced when recorded action was cut into the live video action, someone said, "Okay, fine, but given all that, what the hell was it all about?" I could only conclude it was about this retired professor who lived in upper Cuba Street whose brain kept up an endless barrage of earnest and sometimes agonised thoughts about the world most of us accept at face value (for fear that we, too, might go mad with the worry). And the video sequence is there to prove our perceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ can easily deceive us

Contributions to that, or to explaining how the illusion was done, are welcome.


clare March 31st, 2006

I saw Eraritjaritjaka from the stalls and could smell the omelette he cooked. And being there I managed to catch most of the poetry surtitles but had to let the philosophy wash over me rather than taking in each phrase. Therefore my overall impression of the show was purely from the heart: I felt the crushing realities of growing old in a world not made for you any more, where your wisdom is lonelier than the (perhaps) selfish curiosity of youth, where understanding the metaphorical nature of life doesn't help you live it after the loss of your wife, your youth and your professional identity / career. And this was before I learned the meaning of the title through John's review.

Sam Trubridge March 31st, 2006

Since I have been developing a show that will use a similar technique, I will try to tell you how he did it - though I only managed to nut most of it out after. He used certain shots where darkness, or a uniform surface covers the screen for transitions between live and recorded footage. The first of these was a brief moment of darkness when the actor left the auditorium. The darkness allowed the live editing to bring in prerecorded footage of him leaving the theatre, getting into a car, and driving up the street. Just before he goes into the house there is another transition - the camera goes really close to the back of his jacket as he opens the door. This allows them to edit in a shot that begins with exactly the same close-up. This shot woudl have been re-done every day so they could have the right newspaper, the right date on the wall etc. This shot finishes when he goes to the fridge. There is a close up. The smell of the omlettes could have come from live action. But it ws probably a stagehand cooking it up. It probably becomes live again when he falls to the floor upstairs. There is a shot when he opens the door to the attic where the set up on the screen could have allowed the same kind of transition. After that he opens the window... What a great show! Lets hope we get more of that kind of theatre in future festivals!

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Worth the brain effort

Review by Lynn Freeman 01st Mar 2006

Eraritjaritjaka is as impossible to categorise as it is to spell.

An hour and a half of ideas is a lot for a brain to take in but it’s absolutely worth the effort. What about the species of animal that the rise of man prevented from evolving? Or what about "to speak as if were the last sentence allowed you"? And that’s just two of the hundreds of concepts and ideas based on the words of Elias Canetti, turned into a – well, play’s not the right word about this performance about words, but it will have to do. All accompanied André Wilms is the performer, equal turns actor and narrator and Heiner Goebbels, one of Germany’s foremost directors, is at the helm.

The show is full not only with ideas but also largely 20th century music played live, and with hi tech-ery which includes the actor literally leaving the building with at his back. Ah, but then the trick in the tail… it leaves you a little confused, but keen to study Canetti’s work.


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Esoteric, unique & complex

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 25th Feb 2006

German director and composer Heiner Goebbels is quoted as saying that theatre should be full of surprises.  This is somewhat of an understatement when applied to his latest work Eraritjaritjaka – the first production to play at the Opera House as part of this year’s International Festival of The Arts. 

He is also quoted as saying that it’s "very musical, aesthetic, entertaining and astonishing".  Again it is all of these and more and is probably one of the most visually creative and innovative pieces of theatre to come to a Festival in a long while. 

It is however very esoteric and probably incomprehensible to most of those who go to see it but this doesn’t detract from the uniqueness of the production.  More a piece of performance art, almost a visual installation, than a piece of theatre, simple in its concept and presentation, this simplicity however belying an underlying complexity that is many layered, delving into the real and not so real.  The juxtaposition of music, words, dialogue, light, sound and video also all add to the productions complexity. 

The opening is one of Shostakovich’s string quartets, expertly played by The Mondriaan Quartet of Amsterdam.  After this the solo performer of the piece, Andre Wilms enters and on a bare stage proceeds to recite lines, in French, from the note books of Noble Prize winning philosopher, Elias Canetti, much of which is Canetti’s cynical view on life taken from newspaper articles and observing peoples behaviour.  Wilms also interacts with various objects he finds on the stage, including a tiny house which has great significance later in the piece and fascinating light forms, the Mondriaan Qurtet continuing to play in the background. 

The piece-de-resistance is then a live video show which Wilms becomes part of, to describe in detail however would be to take away much of the productions surprise.  Suffice to say that the concept of reality and perceived reality is thrown in sharp focus through this segment of the production. While visually fascinating however, the production does have an evenness of pace and veers at times into the tedious.

There are also subtitles displayed for the non French speakers in the audience.  However they are so high up that it’s impossible to keep both the words and the actor in focus at the same time, thus much of Canetti’s words and philosophical statements are lost. 

So while not a spectacular first production at the Opera House this Festival it is none-the-less an interesting one.


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