The Highest Aspirations and the Basest Lusts
Pieter T’Jonck - De Standaard (17 November 2000)

Few Things was originally intended to be an adaptation of Bela Bartok’s pantomime piece The Miraculous Mandarin. But Bartok’s heirs vetoed the production as soon as it was first shown in New York. A lack of faithfulness to Bartok’s work was the least of their objections. The fact that Muriel Hérault moved around the stage half-naked, wearing headphones, was considered to show an even greater lack of respect. The music in this piece now ranges from Tricky to Stockhausen. It’s a pity for the heirs, because to judge by the reworked version they cannot have watched closely enough. And they certainly did not understand that too much respect only leads to dead theatre. You cannot accuse Few Things of being deathlike, even though the piece is essentially about death and its companion, desire. In fact in this respect the piece sticks closely to Bartok’s themes. A mandarin wants a courtesan to marry him. She asks him to wait a hundred days. He comes to court her for ninety-nine days, but on the day of fulfilment he does not turn up. Grace Ellen Barkey does not tell this story straightforwardly, but stages it as a circus gone mad, a ‘funky Chinese opera’ to use her own words. The story revolves round a girl (played by both Tijen Lawton and Hérault) who is forced into prostitution by the pimps Hidama and Downey, two brothers, until one day the great saviour (Simon Versnel) appears. The story fragments into countless ‘apocryphal’ variations in which, for example, a master-slave relationship arises between the street-girl and her saviour. Even so, the performance’s intention does not seem to be to deconstruct or profane any ur-myth. As far as I am concerned, what Barkey is showing here, in a brilliant, associative and moreover witty way, is the many ways in which desire, doubt, fear and lust possess and shape the body. She uses movements to do this rather than words. The chaotic-associative form of the performance matches the way all these emotions tinge the performers’ présence in ever-varying combinations. And what especially defies all description is the way Lawton is able, in her appearance, to suggest tender dignity, vulgar seductiveness, irony and rage, all in a single movement, without putting the others in the shade. You have to see it to understand it.

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