Because women are tremendously important
Pieter T'Jonk - DE TIJD (21 September 2004)

Jan Lauwers on Needcompany's Isabella's Room There's a high-spirited mood at Needcompany. With good reason. Isabella's Room, the new play by Jan Lauwers, was received with exceptional enthusiasm at the Avignon Festival and is now going down a storm in Brussels. This is a conversation with Jan Lauwers from before the opening, about a 'white' production with a 'feisty woman' playing the lead. 'Not even in literature do you find many portraits of feisty women'. We ask who Isabella actually is. Jan Lauwers has a story about it. 'When my father died two years ago, he left me a collection of about 5800 ethnological and archaeological objects. My father was a doctor, but in his free time he was an amateur ethnographer. As a child I never questioned it: I grew up amongst all these objects. Of course with hindsight you wonder what they did for him. And when such a collection is just handed to you, you also have to decide what you're going to do with it. It's an ethical questioned too, because many of these objects were probably stolen from their original creators and ended up in a setting where they don't belong. Several things led me to write a story about this collection. It naturally contains a great many biographical and autobiographical elements. But the story is told by a woman, Isabella Morandi, who has never in reality existed. Her story begins in 1910 and runs up to the present day. So at the same time this gives you a panorama of the past century. She studied the collection and dreams of going to Africa. But she will never achieve this except for one extremely short stay.' Does Isabella's family name refer to the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who throughout his life painted nothing other than modest still-lifes? 'Yes, it is a reference to the painter. It's a sort of joke. Sometimes I wished that I was the sort of artist who could concentrate on a single thing and distil the essence from it. Whereas in fact I'm very restless. I'm always doing four things at the same time. But that's also exactly why I dislike that figure. But I wouldn't simply call Isabella Morandi my alter ego. I opted for a female rather than a male narrator in the first place because I think women are tremendously important, but are never given the position they deserve. Even in literature and film you find very few portraits of feisty women. I wanted to create a female counterpart to such mythical characters as Zorba the Greek and Mark Antony in Shakespeare. Who better to achieve that than Viviane De Muynck? But of course it was the death of my father that led to this play.' However, Lauwers did not want to put his father at the heart of the play. 'So it turned into a story about a woman and the men who played a part in her life. And all manner of biographical elements find their way into it. What it comes down to in the end is that all these characters together form an image of who I am and where I am. But as soon as the play was in existence, I wanted to obliterate myself from it as much as possible. It may seem paradoxical, but it is precisely for this reason that I take part in the performance myself this time. What it means is that I am there onstage but do not have a clear part or place. Not like Tadeusz Kantor, who directed from onstage. You might say that the simple fact that I am there onstage without taking part in the action makes sure that it is no longer about me. I see the stage as a mental space where you can reflect on things. That's also why it's Isabella's Room.' Light-hearted Many of the people who saw it in Avignon commented that for Lauwers it is an unusually light-hearted play. 'I have often made 'dark' plays in the past. Morning Song was a turning point in that respect. How did it come about? I find the things happening on the world stage a tremendous burden. In addition there is my father's recent death. That's probably why I needed to do a 'white' play. I wanted people to feel good when they saw it. In Avignon someone even called me the festival's optimist. Not that I compromise. I still play on the same themes '“ eroticism, power, death '“ but this time the actors keep it friendly for the audience. To give an example: there is a clear storyline in this play. So the images surprise the viewer slightly less abruptly. The autobiographical slant in the play also appears to be attractive, though I'm afraid that is mainly because nowadays no one any longer knows how to deal with art. The context in which to reflect or evaluate seems to have been so thoroughly lost that people prefer to concentrate on the artist's life. And lastly, it is a sort of musical. And music is a powerful seducer. It carries the viewer along. I have made thorough misuse of it. The composers Hans Petter Dahl and Maarten Seghers have also given me outstanding assistance. You can buy the CD of the 'soundtrack', and after the first night in Avignon you could hear it wafting out of windows everywhere. From which I conclude that Isabella's Room reaches a broad public. Sham Clarity Lauwers is pleased about this last point. 'I am generally thought of as a member of the ascetic elite, one of those who prefer James Joyce to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but that doesn't mean I look down on Marquez. He packages the content of his work in a more straightforward form, but that does not detract from this content. And anyway, one could easily misjudge this play. It may be easily digestible, but the clarity of the story is only an illusion. Just compare it to Lars Van Trier's films: Dogville is a clear linear story, but there is more behind it than that. I am trying to regauge the definition of theatre in a similar way.' How is this work for the stage related to his work as an artist? 'Theatre makes different demands from art. For example, is an actor also an entertainer? How do you relate to the audience? Is it true, as Louise Bourgeois says, that applause is a form of terrorism for the mind? The evolution of theatre shows that in the past the limits of theatre were explored in small experimental theatres, while the large theatres were entirely oriented towards the bourgeoisie. So at that time it was still possible to shock an audience. Now things are completely different. In Avignon I was struck by the fact that the 'fringe' theatre now only shows conservative work intended to entertain, while the official selection shows the challenging experimental theatre. But at a venue that has been utterly claimed by the bourgeoisie and those in power. Whatever you do, no one can be knocked off balance. So what sort of codes do you have to think up to get things moving? It's different in art. In art you are concerned with your own questions. You create a mental space of your own. A refuge.'

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