Zur deutschen Fassung in der taz-Beilage vom 21. Mai 2015. [PDF, 5,9 MB]

Making a theatre piece might seem like an easy deal. Start by deciding on some random play. Then choose a director who might extract some morale or lesson from it. After adding some actors and a scenographer to the team, all you have to do is rehearse until a story appears in a more or less recognizable and edifying way. The only problem is: The result is likely to be tedious and less than interesting. If it is true that theatre mirrors society, then all too often this mirror looks worn out. The image we get seems to lack some deeply felt ‘truth’. We despair at the idea that this theatre might not matter at all.

The nagging question of how to get closer to what is really at stake in the hearts and minds of audience and performers alike has led some theatre makers to try out new ways of working, using various different methods. What Tim Etchells, Jan Lauwers and Alain Platel have in common, apart from this quest, is their belief that strong bonds between performers can bring about the necessary confidence to go beyond the beaten track. Each of them has developed their own individual ways of setting out for uncharted ground.

Etchells relies very much on procedures and lists to produce meaning in places where nobody expected to find it. Lauwers explores the microcosm of his own company as if it were a scale model of the world. Platel looks at popular culture to find feelings and meanings that appear to have been lost in a world governed by the media. All this becomes evident if we take a closer look at some of their work.

Forced Entertainment: „Who Can Sing a Song to Unfrighten Me?“, 2004 © Hugo Glendinning

Don’t be afraid in the dark

In 1999, Tim Etchells and ‘his’ company Forced Entertainment set out on a daring experiment, called “Who can sing a song to unfrighten me?” This is how they describe it accurately on their website: “(the piece) takes the public and its fourteen performers on a long journey from night to day and back again. Combining a firm frame with an endless demand for improvisation and ‘liveness,’ the twenty-four-hour performance recycles and mutates a collection of scenes, performance structures and costumes. There are kings, skeletons, zoo animals, ballerinas. There are disappearing routines, dances, sleazy cabaret demonstrations of the difference between life and death. There are lists of fears, language lessons, alphabets chalked on a blackboard, and bedtime stories that grow and change and crosscut and somehow never end. The focus throughout the piece is on the act of staying up all night as a kind of protection from the demons hidden in darkness and on performance itself as a way of marking and sharing time.”

This show was neither the first nor the last of Forced Entertainment’s durational pieces. They are very attached to the format, despite the tremendous effort it takes. The description shows at once what happens there and how it comes about. The way in which this group works comes very close to the work of the French author Georges Perec, who scrutinized ordinary life through a simple device: making endless lists of anything and everything. In doing so, he would point out categories that govern our thinking, while at the same time showing their unreliability and their provisional and unstable character. His work always yields a strong feeling that whatever someone says, something remains unsaid. But in his relentless efforts to get around this inevitable fallacy, some idea of what this ‘unsaid’ or ‘unthought’ matter might be transpires. That is exactly what happens in every durational piece by Forced Entertainment. The live aspect adds quite some extra benefits, however, if only because the performers ‘lose it’ now and then through sheer exhaustion and in that way become very close and even dear to the audience. The challenge of such a long play also brings along an intense commitment between the performers, as they have to make it through the night together. The improvisational aspect provokes sudden leaps of logic or unexpected turns, giving birth to a myriad of small stories that come into existence during the performance, never to appear again in the same way. Finally, there is the superb ability of this company to take an ever fresh and sometimes disconcerting look at the most mundane ideas or things. They love to look at them in a mostly irreverent way, like a child that wrecks a toy to know how it works exactly – only to grieve deeply or lose interest afterwards.

Jan Lauwers, Grace Ellen Barkey und Mohamed Toukabri in „The blind poet“ © Maarten Vanden Abeele

The blind poet

Jan Lauwers’ Needcompany is similar to Forced Entertainment in the strong ties that bind its members. The group has always been something of a close-knit family. The story line of some pieces, such as “Isabella’s Room” or “Marktplaats 76” even portrayed them as a family or community, trapped in complex and erratic plots which reflect history at large in unexpected ways and moments. The same goes for “The blind poet”, a real masterpiece. It is a collection of self-portraits of all the members of a theater company who, as was common practice in the past, share everything on their endless journeys from venue to venue. But as the members of this family come from all four corners of Europe and even beyond, they also are tainted by all that is rotten in this European universe. As all members of the group delve into their past or memories, a blazing critique on the narrow-mindedness of our current world takes shape. And yet the piece offers two hours of fantastic, exciting, heartwarming and -breaking, hilarious and tragic theater.

What it is all about becomes evident at once when Grace Ellen Barkey comes on stage, dressed in traditional Indonesian garb, but with her face made up like a clown’s. Her oversized shoes as well are those of a clown, not a Balinese dancer. She herself does not seem to be in the least aware of this discrepancy as she starts repeating her own name at an ever faster pace and ever greater volume. The rest of the group eggs on this act of crazy self-glorification from out of the orchestra pit. Barkey herself thinks she has good reason for it: She claims to be the pinnacle of multiculturalism, having Indonesian, Chinese, German and Dutch ancestors. She is not in the least impressed when Mohamed Toukabri objects that he is of the purest blood. He is chased off the stage at once.

After that, it is time for Maarten Seghers to adulate himself, but somehow he doesn’t succeed to do so. Going back forty generations of blacksmiths, he ends up with horrible stories of ancestors who ate children during the Medieval Crusades, because horses were too expensive to serve as food. The autobiography of Hans Petter Dahl turns out to be at least as tainted, even if he desperately tries to pose as the reckless Viking. It seems he does so only to hide heinous acts of cowardice in the past. Anna Sophia Bonnema reflects on this when she takes the stage after Dahl. She reaches the conclusion that it might be best not to talk about anything else than oneself, as most observations about the identity of others turn out to be vicious and deceitful, leading to startling narrow-mindedness.

That is not exactly the view that Benoît Gob takes. During a spectacular show, he brags about his youth as a street fighter, but again, there is a flip side to the coin. Between the lines, a story of gross neglect can be made out. As was the case for Barkey, the company encourages him to take his wild stories further and further. Jules Beckman, an American with Judeo-Russian roots, has his moment of glory afterwards, but again, it seems as if this too is only intended to hide old scars.

It is at this point in the story that two gigantic objects roll onto the stage. They look like chess pieces that challenge one another with lances. The Medieval past, mentioned by Seeghers before, seems to be back. The Tunisian actor Mohamed Toukabri refers to it obliquely in the most confusing of all the self-portraits so far. He enters, dressed as a ‘bling-bling’ Tunisian youngster. Even on stage, he cannot stop checking his cellphone, in the way Maghreb youngsters often seem to be obsessed by their phones. Cliché, cliché. He confronts us with our own, not very positive, image of an Arab. After that, he starts talking about his personal life. Suddenly, he quotes a poem by the blind Arab poet Abu al’ala al Ma’arri (973-1053). As early as a millennium ago, this man warned us not to accuse the world or the other spectres that haunt us. That is exactly what Lauwers wants us to understand when he lets some really ghostly objects loose on the stage.

Wim Opbrouck in „En avant, marche!“ © Phile Deprez

Life as a brass band

Alain Platel rarely worked with such a tight company for long periods of time. More than once, he felt the need to look for performers in unusual places, as a way to get in touch with the ‘raw’ facts of life in a direct, uncompromising way. On the other hand, he often felt the need to collaborate with another director, such as Arne Sierens, or, in more recent times, musical director Frank Van Laecke. Together, they made “Gardenia”, a piece with and about the life of transvestites who led a double life: working during the day and performing in clubs at night. It was a tremendous success, because of its strong veracity.

“En avant, marche!” is a yet another collaboration between Platel and Van Laecke. This time, they looked for inspiration in the world of Flemish brass bands. These bands still are at the heart of community life in many a small Flemish town. In this way, they tell us a lot about an outlook on life at the fringes of the ‘big world’. The piece opens in an unexpectedly subdued way. A stout man (Wim Opbrouck) sullenly enters the stage. His striped trousers reveal that he is a member of a band. He connects a portable DVD player to the sound system, picks up two cymbals and waits for his cue to join in in the overture of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” . He soon loses patience, for the music has little action in store for him. When the rest of the band enters the space, he hides in the back behind his instrument.

We soon understand that this man is not shy at all. His strange conduct is only due to the fact that he just learned he has throat cancer and can no longer play the trombone. The disease thus condemns him to the back row of the band. He announces this in a cynical, half angry tone. In Italian. That is no coincidence: He is citing Pirandello’s monologue “L’uomo dal fiore in bocca”, in which a man cries out his anger about his cancer. Soon however, he switches to a hotchpotch of French, Dutch and German.

This story is the base line of “En avant, marche!” In Pirandello’s play, the man pushes his lover away when he learns about his disease. That is the case here too. Halfway through the play, the man harasses the middle-aged cheerleaders of the band with gross remarks. One of them, Griet Debacker, nonetheless confesses her deep love for him. She also expresses her fear of losing him in a heartbreaking way. For a moment, the loudmouth remains speechless, but then rejects her love. He remains utterly alone.

The band however saves him from total depression. Directors Frank Van Laecke and Alain Platel and conductor Steven Prengels work with a small band of seven semi-professional, exquisite musicians, backed up by an outstanding local brass band. They master standards of the European repertoire as well as a mix of jazz and Tex-Mex wonderfully. On top of that, they prove to be excellent actors. In the final moments of the play, one of these musicians, Hendrik Lebon, comes to the foreground with a dance solo that makes him stand out as the new band leader. Lebon, a former ballet dancer, easily surpasses the older Opbrouck, who is no dancer at all, in a final duet. Opbrouck is not afraid of being ridiculous, however. In fact, he blazes with self-confidence, because in this moment he passes on the leadership of the band to the younger man. In doing so, he comes to terms with his own fate.

The play does not tell this story in a straightforward way. There are only few ‘original’ lines. It mostly quotes existing texts and poems to get the story told, and focuses first of all on the life and times of a traditional brass band. It admiringly portrays the dedication of the members to their common effort. The story of the old trombonist is but one of many, albeit the most important one, because it says everything about the huge social significance of communities such as these.

Music, more than dance, has a central place in this fresco. The directors made eclectic choices: Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, Schubert, but also North American brass band music. More often than not, the music gives away the subtext of what is going on, as for instance in the last confrontation between the old man and the young dancer, when someone plays “Leiermann” from Schubert’s “Winterreise” on the mouthpiece of a trumpet. Here it shows great closeness to the oeuvre of Christoph Marthaler, but a Marthaler in a rather happy mood.

“En avant, marche!”, “The blind poet” and “From The Dark” can be seen at Foreign Affairs 2016.