Naked among the Shards
Peter Jungblut - Kulturwelt BR (23 August 2019)

Featuring a soldier-turned-dancer; questioning how "idiotic" Israel really is… The Belgian performer Jan Lauwers and his Needcompany don’t shy away from provocation. A disturbing yet thought-provoking evening that tackles the big themes of art and life.

Elik Niv — what a career! What a life! He used to be an elite Israeli soldier, both on- and off-stage, tasked with the secret mission of killing Hezbollah activists in Lebanon. After a gunshot to the leg, the soldier left the army, studied ballet despite his injuries, and moved to Germany as a professional dancer. And now we see Niv lying butt-naked in an industrial monument, the machine hall of the former Zweckel coal mine in Gladbeck. He plays himself falling in love with a Belgian woman and wreaking havoc with her anti-Israeli artist family.

A dog with severed vocal chords

He killed eleven people, says Niv, cutting an ear off each corpse to provide evidence of a mission accomplished. A watchdog with severed vocal chords always stood mutely on guard — dogs can hear things happening a kilometer away. The soldiers carried explosives over the rough terrain, were effectively programmed to self-destruct. The audience wonders whether a tale like his can be true. His life story seems authentic, the bloody war anecdotes perhaps less so. Still, they serve very well to alienate the audience.

Bohemia in Molenbeek, Brussels

Jan Lauwers, the head of Needcompany, met Eliv Niv and decided to involve him in an autobiographical project. "All the Good" is the outcome of that decision. Watching it is a disturbing yet simultaneously rewarding experience. “All the Good” explores the lives of the insecure bohemians today. It is also about the Lauwers's artist company, Needcompany, which is based in Molenbeek in Brussels at a time marked by terrorism and constant conflict in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the company and its artists are against killing, against the soldiers’ brutal handiwork and against Israeli politics, too. But then Lauwers's daughter confuses matters by bringing Elik Niv home. She has sex with him and films close-up shots of his genitals. She teases him, finds him sexy.

The above-mentioned part of the story is pure invention. The boundaries between reality and fiction in the piece are intentionally blurred throughout. Lauwers himself leads the audience through the evening, introducing the actor who plays him and filling the audience in on everyone involved in the performance: his creative wife, his rebellious son and his Brazilian muse, his daughter and several musicians (directed by Maarten Seghers) who also play minor roles as foxes, rats and crows. The audience is privy to two hours of communal life in the stage-workshop. We witness petty jealousies, infidelities and many debates about art. We also see how the family keeps its distance from Niv, who is more tolerated than respected and must eventually answer a barrage of awkward questions: How "idiotic" is Israel? What does killing a man do to a person? 

Art should make no compromises

It’s no mean feat to follow the issues at play and the languages in which they’re expressed: "All the Good" is in Hebrew, Flemish, English, French, and a few fragments of German. Despite this, it’s a cohesive piece, sometimes sarcastic in tone, sometimes disquieting, providing moments of satirical commentary on a life lived between art and reality. Lauwers staunchly rejects political theater for fear of both aestheticising politics and of making art political — both, in his eyes, are dangerous. Artists shouldn’t make compromises, shouldn’t present us with solutions that should come from politicians. As a result, he sticks to aesthetic debates and several insightful image descriptions.

Glass objects from Hebron 

References to art are peppered throughout "All the Good". Pablo Picasso’s large-scale painting "Guernica" crops up, as does Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal sculpture with the strange title, "Fountain". The question of whether Duchamp had nothing better to do in the middle of World War I is posed. Right at the end, Rogier van der Weyden’s unsettling painting "The Descent From the Cross" (1440) is thoroughly analysed. But what is the link between art and terrorism in the Middle East? "All the Good" interrogates whether there is still good to be found in the world despite the inherent suffering. Lauwers’s answer is hardly surprising: that’s for everyone to find out for themselves. His implicit advice is to look, and then to look again… especially at major works of art. The wider implication is that people are more than deserving of the same considered judgment.

The stage in Gladbeck is adorned with 800 glass objects blown by the Palestinian glassblower Mahmoud, who Lauwers met in Hebron. They look like tears, like droplets of some sort. Several fall and smash, and shards of glass litter the stage. There’s a very real fear of injury, as the actors sometimes dance barefoot. 

What a spectacle! “All the Good” is a rich and thought-provoking theatrical experience, fully deserving of the audience’s enthusiastic, yet by no means gushing, applause. 

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Jan Lauwers Grace Ellen Barkey Maarten Seghers performing arts visual arts Film
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