This stage adaptation, with its bursts of brilliance, is a blend of live music, dance, performance and popular theatre. At is heart is the impressive presence of Viviane De Muynck as The Narrator.
Halfway through the performance of War and Turpentine there is a furious fencing match between several performers. Dancers hurl each other across the stage, clothes are torn off muscular bodies. It is a fight to the death and it looks dangerously real. This is how the director Jan Lauwers depicts the horrors of the First World War, which in Belgium still counts as one of the nation’s great traumas.
Lauwers has adapted Stefan Hertmans’ successful novel War and Turpentine (2013) for the stage, in a co-production by his own group, Needcompany, and Toneelhuis in Antwerp. This was a courageous act on his part, since the marvellous description of the life of Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain Martien is so literary that it is hard to imagine making a play out of it. And why would you, when the book itself is so good? Why? Because Lauwers has the actress Viviane De Muynck at his disposal and because he simply has an unbridled theatrical imagination.
We are all familiar with what went before: just before Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain Martien died in 1981 he gave his grandson several notebooks full of memories of his life before, during and after the First World War. A life spent between war (Martien was a soldier at the front) and turpentine (he was also a painter): a chronicle of a human life full of violence, traumas, love, death and the consolation of art.
This stage adaptation, with its bursts of brilliance, is a blend of live music, dance, performance and popular theatre. At is heart is the impressive presence of Viviane De Muynck as The Narrator. For a good two hours she gives us an unprecedented tour de force: she narrates, projects herself into the story, with the necessary detachment, and paints pictures in words. It was entirely appropriate that the whole audience at the Bourla Theatre in Antwerp rewarded her with an ovation and cries of ‘bravo’.