Jan Lauwers' hope
Pieter T'Jonk - DE TIJD (30 September 2004)

Isabella Morandi, the narrator of Isabella's Room, Jan Lauwers' new play for Needcompany, has witnessed many horrors in her lifetime. It started with her mother's suicide. And carried on in the same vein. An unexpected and yet familiar Jan Lauwers well in his stride. As has often been the case, his stage setting is more like a collection of unconnected objects than a structured support for the action. It is only in the eyes of the performers that these dead objects show their magic. There is one difference, though, and that is that Lauwers did not make or choose these objects himself; they are part of an ethnographic collection he inherited from his father, who died only recently. He tells the audience this straight away in his introductory talk. And, as if he were the leader of an 'all-star jazz band', he then introduces the actors one by one and briefly explains their sometimes rather unorthodox roles. It is clear enough that Viviane De Muynck is Isabella, Anneke Bonnema her mother, Benoît Gob her father, Hans Petter Dahl her lover and Maarten Seghers her nephew. But what are we to think of Tijen Lawton as 'Sister Bad', the intuitive right half of her brain, and Louise Peterhoff as 'Sister Joy', the rational, linguistic left half. And also Ludde Hagberg who, as the narrator, also portrays Isabella's genitals, and Julien Fauré who, as the imaginary desert prince/father/lover dominates the stage without actually uttering a single word? It is even more absurd that all the characters '“ although apart from the leading lady they all die a more or less horrible death or fade into madness '“ remain on stage all the time and interfere at length in Isabella's life-story. They do this by acting out a piece of the story or by commenting on the action. They are very often simply present as the key figures with whom Isabella remains in mental conversation throughout her life. But above all they form a polyphonic chorus which at set times bursts into song and sometimes screams too. However, in the framework of this unusual theatrical logic the play works wonderfully well, and a coherent range of meaning also becomes apparent. After her mother's death, Isabella inherits from her father a room in Paris packed full of ethnographic objects. They are an expression of the cruel domination of women by men, as the chorus explains. But Isabella stands firm in the midst of this intimidating presence. She even reverses the roles. She becomes a woman who plunges uninhibitedly, but not blindly or foolishly, into life and love. She continues to give, with no hard feelings, even when men such as her lover Alexander constantly betray her. Even when Alexander later becomes an annoyance to her when he is driven mad by the war, she continues to support him. The difference between the two centres on her immense capacity to accept even the unacceptable and not to look back, while Alexander continues to fight against the world out of sheer frustration. Lauwers constructs this antagonism between man and woman a second time in the painful love story of Isabella's parents. Her father raped her mother without her ever realising it. He later smuggled Isabella, supposedly as a foundling, back into the house. But this woman could not live with her 'secret' and committed suicide. Yet she too had a special strength; because after her death the father was no longer able to preserve his former equanimity, nor is he able to accept his regret for the past. It is in this bitter twist that one recognises the dark undertone of Lauwers' work. But the vitality of the fantastic ensemble playing dominates an unexpected lightness and even hope.

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