Sad Face | Happy Face
Peter Michalzik - Frankfurter Rundschau (3 August 2008)

Hans Petter doesn't just look good. The Norwegian with his solemn singing is also able to make us feel pleasantly sad. Looking and listening to Benoît, one feels nice and warm, like lying in the arms of a relaxed clown. Inge’s skirt is daringly short and her legs are incredibly long. And Yumiko from Japan brings with her such transcendental beauty that her friendly, open looks become a true gift pack. Just four of the twelve on the stage, just four of twelve whom we feel we could watch forever. First and foremost, the Needcompany is a collection of beautiful people. They are beautiful in a simple way, they look good and have that sort of beauty that you only find with very individual people, people where you can see that they don’t just live, but also have a (hi)story to tell. You can be frustrated by beauty, it can make you greedy or at a loss for words, you can marvel at it, even idolise it, you can want to destroy it or turn it off, but you can never see enough of it, and you can’t remain unmoved by it. Beauty – maybe that’s the last mystery that we still believe in. The best time to see the characteristics of this multilingual company, whose names states that they need company, is at the beginning of "The Deer House" ("Das Hirschhaus"). They fill the white stage easily, not occupying it but whimsically taking into their possession. We watch them backstage at a guest performance. Casually dressed, they dance and squeal, making music and fun, rolling up their trouser legs, pulling down their trousers, sticking towels into their backsides as tails. They chat about what’s been happening to them - Benoît witnessed an accident, Annecke killed a deer with a bolt stunner, Maarten’s mother has had a heart attack and his brother has died – a bundle of unconnected stories. It's astonishing how one can take possession of a stage in such as relaxed and exhilarant way. Just doing so points to a striking intelligence. It’s for such staging that Jan Lauwers and his Needcompany have become famous. A lot of thought has gone into it, books on post-modern theatre have been written specially on it, it’s been copied countless times. At the end it’s the same old story: you sometimes feel yourself so at one with these beautiful actors that you feel you are one of them. Nothing here seems contrived, although one is left in no doubt that everything is artificial: the implicitness of art. Here, life on the stage is as real as life itself. In the backstage scene Tijen talks about another of those chance happenings. She’s just back from the Yugoslavian civil war, where her brother, a war photographer, was shot dead. She’s found his diary, in which he has written short, pertinent texts on his photos. But she hasn’t found out how he actually died. An unconscious Yumiko is also found backstage. Nobody knows her, although she knows everyone on waking up. What’s happening here? They all want to investigate this stranger, take her clothes off, go through her handbag. Everything happening here seems very fragile, stage minutes made of thin glass. Then the whole scene changes. We’re in a valley somewhere in Kosovo, in the deer house where a family has retreated to breed deer. This is all an invention. The death of Tijen’s brother is being invented. It’s an attempt to pick out his (hi)story out of the whole world of war. This "Deer House" is an attempt to put immeasurable grief into words and pictures. "The Deer House" is the third part of Jan Lauwers' trilogy "Sad Face / Happy face – Three Stories about the Human Character". It is the sad part. The first part celebrated life, the second abandoned itself to despair. "The Deer House" is a drama about the present, following the first part representing the past, and the second portraying the future. It’s the completion of Lauwers’ and Needcompany’s trilogy, that began four year’s ago in Avignon with "Isabella’s Room". That production is now seen as a theatre milestone. It was followed by "The Lobster Shop", also first performed in Avignon. Following the premiere of "The Deer House" the complete trilogy is being performed for the first time in Salzburg. It is a mature production, an impressive panorama of a confusing period in time and a touching reflection on life. "Isabella's Room" is cluttered up with an ethnographic collection of African objets d’art. Jan Lauwers inherited such a collection from his father in real-life, and on this the plot is based. Tijen’s brother was also shot in real-life and really was a war photographer. Just as in "The Deer House" the fiction arises from the real-life death of the brother, so the fictional life of Isabella arises from Lauwers’ father’s collection. The sharing of the same picture by both audience and actors, the heart of any staged drama, is explicitly the common denominator of this trilogy. It’s what makes "Isabella’s Room", together with Isabella’s disarming liveliness, so irresistible. Isabella draws her stupendous vitality from an imaginary Africa and from the actress Viviane De Muynck. She’s swilled through a century but portrays a vitality which leaves surrealism and "Finnegan’s Wake" looking like old hat. Isn’t this Isabella a beautiful person, isn’t Viviane De Muynck a beautiful actress! Part two, "The Lobster Shop" has to do without De Muynck and any real-life anchor (it’s about the future, anyway). It’s a complex construction, bringing confusion rather than understanding. It’s part musical, part suburbia, part family drama. It may even be that Lauwers is wittingly provoking confusion. It starts full of humour and lobster (German "Hummer"), slowly sinking into depression with regard to a future that we are all in the process of creating: dissolution, violence, nightmares. Everything is smothered – like screams into a microphone without an amplifier. There's just one young, very beautiful couple. The one is the clone Salman, looking like Adam Green. The other is Nasty, with a model’s dream body and parading her bare breasts. They celebrate themselves, he with his guitar, she with her naked bodies. Though "The Lobster Shop" is the weakest part of the trilogy, it is an essential part with its harsh, wild gloom. That leaves us with the present-day deer house, juxtaposed between the opulent but past life of Isabella and the lobster nihilism of the future. The stage is full of rubber deer torsos representing all the dead – a striking, moralistic yet unassailable monument. Viviane De Muynck as the mother is the centre of the remote family. One of her daughters is the mentally retarded Grace, played by Grace Ellen Barkey with an emphasis and identification never before witnessed in the history of the Needcompany. When Grace calls out "Mama", when she shakes her dead sister like a rubber dear, when she, white-gloved and with her own variety of compassion, saves the deer, she becomes the guardian of the deer and the Needcompany becomes a quite normal ensemble. But this Grace remains strange: Lauwers has modelled her on Nicole Kidman in Lars von Triers’ film "Dogville", where Kidman plays Grace. All figures in "The Deer House" use their real-life names, so Grace is Grace is Grace. The plot’s is centred around Tijen's dead brother Benoît arriving at the deer house in a snow storm to tell everybody that he has shot Inge, one of Viviane’s other daughters. While photographing a mass execution he has been forced to kill either the mother or her daughter, thereby saving one of their lives. Lauwers always has the dead living on the stage. "The Deer House" is no exception. The dead negotiate with the living about what is to happen next. Lauwers has staked his whole reputation as a writer on these stories in "The Deer House". His drilling down has reached the depth needed to do justice to his obnoxious theme, civil war with its confusion of murder, mass murder and traumata. "The Deer House" is a dramatic reflection on our role in war. Benoît, the observing war photographer, killed Inge because he was forced by soldiers to take part in the war. The observer had to take sides. The war which was not his war swallowed him up, infected him. There’s no such thing as a neutral perspective. Just like compassion, in reality there is always something pornographic about it. This realisation is applied by Lauwers to his theatre, and its love of showing beautiful bodies. In "The Deer House", we see the dead Inge – very beautiful and very naked – exhibited on the stage. This brings us to the third and decisive process in this production: it attempts to transform voyeurism into emotion. When the dead Inge, just previously shaken by Grace, gets up and happily remembers how in India the dead are thrown out to the vultures, the futility of death starts to dissolve. When Tijen, the dancer and not very good actress, cries over her brother, nobody – not even she herself - knows how many of those tears are real. But that’s what makes it all so moving for the audience. By creating permeability, this stripped-down, reflected performance, dedicated to the present, brings consolation and emotion.

Ensemble weNEEDmoreCOMPANY Invisible Time Contact
Jan Lauwers Grace Ellen Barkey Maarten Seghers performing arts visual arts Film
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