Why sign it all away?

OPERA Dokumentation I Almeida Theatre, London
Helmut Oehring was born in 1961 in what was then East Berlin. Both his parents are deaf, and his first language was sign-language. He says he became a composer, at the age of 23, after years of obsession with rock music and jazz, "by a number of coincidences and nasty accidents". For him, "the starting point of every sound is a corresponding movement... In a sense, all the music I compose is film music, a soundtrack for a film that isn't shown." He says he "feels like a handicapped film-maker". Sign-language itself is used in some 20 per cent of his compositions.

The British premiere of Oehring's Dokumentation I (1993-1996) was brought to the Almeida on Thursday in a new production mixing German and British performers; it is directed by Andreas Morell and conducted by Roland Kluttig. Lasting barely 50 minutes, this performance borrows the floor cross and some of the visual technology used in the theatre's current production of The Cenci, placing around it a small instrumental ensemble.

Three deaf actresses - Gabriele Arndt, Gerlinde Deml and Christina Schonfeld - play out a kind of abstract mime, their simultaneous threesome using sign-language and occasionally speaking as well. Either side of the stage stand a boy treble (David Newman) and a counter-tenor (Nicholas Clapton), who sing and speak in English, with a little German thrown in, and who also make gestural contributions of their own. A screen shows hands clasping, faces in close-up, a child playing, a lot of car journeys.

The music - frequently highly dissonant, sometimes sharp and acrid, sometimes obsessively rhythmic, occasionally rock-based, and employing various extended instrumental techniques - often sounds like a horror-movie soundtrack. There are also some very nasty electronic noises, some of them vocally based. While the composer's imagination occasionally proves vivid, the soundscape is scarcely engrossing.

One can appreciate why Oehring has become something of a darling of the Continental European new-music scene in the past few years. But, for me, Dokumentation I was highly frustrating. We were told the work has no narrative, which should have freed it up to become a play of abstractions both literal and metaphorical. The staging, however, is perfunctory; the use of film and lighting amateurish and boring, not least by comparison with the splendid vistas offered in The Cenci. Though appreciating the beauty of its gestures, I am unable to read sign-language and admittedly missed an important dimension of the experience: there are, seemingly, few connections between actresses and singers on any level. But even the singers' spoken passages are often drowned out by the instrumental ensemble. I picked out only fragments: about hospitals, blood pressure, journeys, some jejune philosophising.

Of course all this obscurity and perhaps deliberate masking could have been contributing to some kind of allegory of communication, or rather the lack of it. But I learnt at least as much about the evident joys and sorrows experienced by people with hearing disabilities by sitting in the bar beforehand, alone and uncomprehending in a world of signers, as I did from Oehring's Dokumentation I.

Keith Potter