In a darkened theatre, spotlights pick up small details, significant, if somewhat abstruse. A small white boat plies the river Styx, gently undulating on the calm current towards Hades. In the bow of the boat sit two figures, the nervous Singer, in white shirt and barefoot. Opposite him, Death, in black. But this Death is no Grim Reaper; young and agile, he writhes in ecstatic agony, shirtless and androgynous, tormenting the Singer. This Death is as much a creature of the erotic photographs of Bill Henson as the creepiness of the Gothic portraits of Caspar David Friedrich.

More Guilty than the Poet. Photograph © Daniel John Purves

From the outset, the theme of this new theatre piece (co-created by Robert Macfarlane and Joshua Hoare) is Death. Not just any death, but the death of each and every one of us, and the death of one figure in particular, Franz Schubert. As a young gay man, the composer is said to have contracted syphilis, the disease which was to kill him in 1828 at the age of 31. According to many scholars, he composed over 600 songs for solo voice and piano during that tragically brief lifetime.

The Australian tenor Robert Macfarlane sings Schubert as though it were his first language. Born and initially trained in Adelaide, he also studied in Germany with the renowned tenor Peter Schreier. Macfarlane is now resident in Melbourne, where he has been amassing plaudits as a Bach Evangelist and enthusiastic exponent of early music and contemporary scores.

For this hour-long piece, Macfarlane has assembled a dozen or so Schubert songs that share the theme of Death. Hoare, the Artistic Director of the SA Circus Centre, has fleshed out this theme with acrobatic choreography on four remarkable and athletic young dance ‘artists’ (as they are styled), Lisa Goldsworthy, Mayu Muto, Dylan Phillips and Tobiah Booth-Remmers.

The title of their work derives from a telling statement by Schubert himself: “Why should the composer be more guilty than the poet who warms to fantasy by a strange flame, making an idea that inspires him the subject of his own very different treatment?” Schubert’s statement, obscure and illusive, carries over into this theatre piece.

Mortality, Schubert lieder and physical theatre. It’s a bold and brilliant construct, bewildering to some, bristling to others. But, in the eyes and ears of this viewer, it still has some way to go before it reaches its full potential.

The focus of this production falls naturally and squarely on the Singer. Macfarlane’s voice has always impressed his many admirers for its pure and clarion-clear qualities. In true Evangelist fashion, he approaches and delivers a text with great intelligence and sensitive devotion. On this occasion though, his voice seemed shrouded in Schubertian darkness, barely venturing beyond the baritone register. This could have been due to some strain, having to deliver three performances and countless rehearsals in less than a week, as well as battling noises from the reconstruction of the Adelaide Festival Centre outside. Amplified by a discreet ‘Madonna’ mike, Macfarlane could have experimented with different textures, drawing the listener inward, as well as declaiming in full voice. The vocal delivery of the young artists was awkward and not entirely convincing. With further attention to sound design, Macfarlane could have pre-recorded these lines, spoken in English, and, appropriately treated, delivered them with more mystique and magic.

Throughout the performance, Macfarlane was accompanied by the sensitive and nimble playing of Michael Ierace. Eschewing a thumping big Steinway, Ierace produced exquisite sounds on a fortepiano (unexplained in the printed program). Its sparse and delicate sonorities were perfectly suited for this early Romantic music, even the rapid tremolandi of Erlkönig where Macfarlane’s voice took flight.

Embryonically, the visual elements of this show were striking and memorable. A colourless set, black and white neutrals on a bare stage. The image of the fateful white boat. Ropes descending from the ceiling, as the artists hauled themselves towards daylight and jostled for positions on the boat. Pyramids of young torsos. A drowning body panting for breath, expiring in darkness. There is still room for further thought and development here  – projections of early 19th century portraits, masks, veils, other adornments and stark lighting changes redolent of German Expressionist cinema, perhaps.

Singing the songs in the original German was essential, even though this may have further removed the experience from the comprehension of the many senior school children who attended the first performance on Friday morning. The texts were projected on a single screen, but sometimes mysteriously disappeared altogether. The flimsy program contained biographies of all players, but the text titles were the only information provided in a column called “Music Credits,” buried on the back page of the program.

Macfarlane brings an eager enthusiasm and a rare, questing intelligence to everything he does. With this venture, he signals his interest in moving beyond performance as a singer or even singer-actor. He aspires to create and curate events that excite the emotions and intellect. These are aspirations and qualities to be encouraged and cautioned with gentle criticism.

More Guilty than the Poet is a first step along this direction. It is ingenious and thought-provoking, like the best art we have.  The performance I saw – the first of three – seemed more like a dress rehearsal or workshop, played before a rapt and enthusiastic young audience. Still, it appears some distance from its finished form.