The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Christine Dössel - Sueddeutsche Zeitung (4 August 2008)

In their "Sad Face / Happy Face" trilogy, Jan Lauwers and his Needcompany celebrate life in the face of suffering and death It's strange, almost like magic. There you are, sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair for the best part of six hours, listening to a lot of hard, discomforting stories; surrendering to the contradictions and excesses of the 20th century reflected in sadness, despair, suicide and death; watching an agonising video clip (in "The Lobster Shop") of two boys fighting on the beach, beating, kicking each other viciously while their fathers stand by with their hands in their pockets; observing a mother (in an unbearably long scene in "The Deer House") vainly attempting to clothe her daughter’s naked, rigid corpse; being told about sickness, war and heartache – only to leave with a strange feeling of happiness, light-hearted and humming that song that in "Isabella’s Room", the first part of Jan Lauwers’ trilogy "Sad Face / Happy Face", forms the musical link between the three parts: "We just go on and on and on . . .". "Carry on" is the motto for this evening – and the solution. Jan Lauwers, the founder, head, director and spiritus rector of the Belgian Needcompany, no longer needs to be discovered. Now he can be worthily celebrated at the Salzburg Festival - as an old hand of the international avant-garde, whose productions remain so refreshingly unconventional and varied that they are like breaths of air drifting across the stage bringing a whiff of informality, freedom and utter serenity. Inspired by Thomas Oberender, the Salzburg Festival’s drama director, Lauwers followed up his two previous productions "Isabella’s Room" (2004) and "The Lobster Shop" (2006) with a third production, "The Deer House" ("Das Hirschhaus"), which had its premiere in Salzburg this year. Together they form a trilogy "about the Human Character". This was performed in toto on Hallein’s Perner Island as a celebration of life and art in the face of suffering and death. This is no food for strict adherents of peep-box productions on psycho-reality. This is enjoyment for all who believe in theatre as a synthesis of acting, music, performance, dancing and visual arts. All three dramas are self-contained. But in their combination they cut a path from the past into the fears about the future, then back to the present. They all focus on the loss of loved ones and the search for the reasons behind them dying. "Isabella’s Room", the company’s celebrated long-running production, is dedicated to Jan Lauwers’ deceased father, from whom the son inherited that collection of ethnological objets d’art that leave their stamp on his stage installation – sculptures and figures from ancient Egypt and colonial Africa, gathered together on tables, reminiscent of a trade fair. Frustration and Lust Here's Isabella's room. It's a museum, flea-market and place of longing all in one. This is the place where that great actress Viviane de Muynck, Needcompany’s majestic grande dame looks back on a life full of lovers, lies and deceitful hopes. It is a feverish review of her own, fatherless past and the 20th century, multivocal and multilingual, told by the living and the dead, directly or indirectly, in narratives and acted scenes, in rap and choir, in expressive dances and feel-good songs. Hans Petter Dahl, who wrote the music for the complete trilogy together with Maarten Seghers, is not just a formidable composer and singer. He also gives an impressive performance in his role as Alexander, Isabella’s great love. And watching Jan Lauwers’ dancers is a delicatessen in itself – the gracefulness of those almost sculpted bodies, the impulses of their flowing movements, an expression of beauty, fragility, frustration and lust for life. "Isabella's Room" is full of allusions to current affairs and surrealistic phantasmagoria. The production just breathes the spirit of African rituals and great operas. But at the same time you’ll find a whimsical, relaxed keynote with such a wonderfully weird humour, that all fears of incipient kitsch or pathos are quickly dispelled, to be replaced with a lightness that sweeps you through time and suffering on wings. This is not always the case. In "The Lobster Shop", the second and weakest part of the trilogy, melodramatic sentimentality finds its way into the tragedy of parents mourning their dead son. Numerous symbolic figures and long-winded byways lead to a bramble mess, in which the production continually finds itself stuck. Once again the stage is a room of art. It’s a construction of bright geometric forms and movable pieces of scenery, reminiscent of a laboratory or the molecules under investigation inside it. We are in the hallucinating brain of the genetic engineer Axel (Hans Petter Dahl), who wants to commit suicide out of grief over the death of his son Jef (Tijen Lawton), but who is frustrated by weird chance - a waiter in the "Lobster Shop" restaurant trips up, tipping lobster and all the trimmings over his suit. This is the start of a journey taking us not just into Axel’s dark soul (analysed by Anneke Bonnema as a psychiatrist) but also into a world at the end of civilisation. Axels genetic creations, a singing bear and the first human clone Salman, make their baleful, threatening appearances here, as harbingers of the 21st century, like criminals, rebels and illegal immigrants. It’s about identity, grief and fears. But the lust for life is also celebrated, in spite of all the suffering – in mini-musicals reminiscent of Lars von Triers’ "Dancer in the Dark" and dances full of transcendental energy. In his latest production, "The Deer House", Jan Lauwers confronts his ensemble with the actuality of war, setting off a delicate reflection on reality and fiction in a fairy-tale world. It begins with a self-presentation. While the ensemble is getting ready for a performance, chatting away in their underwear and tracksuits, the news reaches them that the brother of the dancer Tijen Lawton (played by herself) has been shot deadn while working as a war photographer in Kosovo. Reality breaks into the world of fiction (Lawton’s brother really was killed in 2001) and the ensemble sets off on its journey, meditating on war and violence, accompanied by the dead man’s diary and leading to the archaic and utopian world of "The Deer House". Rubber antlers, hobbit ears White deer torsos made of rubber fill the stage like Beuys sculptures. Rubber antlers dangle from cloakroom hooks. We are in a strange, magical world. Disguised with hobbit ears, in dwarf and fairy costumes, the actors make up a deer breeder community, living in the remote mountains. This is to where the war photographer (Benoît Gob) comes, carrying the beautiful corpse of Inge (Inge Van Bruystegem), the daughter of the deer house’s matriarch Vivane de Muynck. The war photographer has been forced to kill her to save her child, and is now killed himself, leading to a great argument between the living but also between the dead. "Life always means destruction", it says in the diary, and this is what the drama is all about. But only to comfort us and squeeze our hearts, just like deer breeders do with their animals before they slaughter them.

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