Life mass for the mortal
Monna Dithmer - Politiken (Copenhagen) (2 April 2011)

With his trilogy on modern man the director Jan Lauwers and his ground-breaking Needcompany overwhelmingly suggests how theatre can tell stories today. It may sound like a load of cracked-up bullshit. Straight from the international festival avenues one of those famous, controversial directors rolls up at Republique to tell us about nothing less than “the nature of modern man”. The whole shebang of life and death, suffering and beauty. And even so in a seven hour long trilogy, in which each part represents the past, the present and the future. Come on, please! But that is exactly what Belgian Jan Lauwers and his pioneering Needcompany invite us to: theatre in an extraordinary human format that astonishingly let us in. I still don’t understand exactly how. During the performance, however – right there in a performance, that seems to flow over and be too much and a too little at the same time – it was like touching the core of life. An overwhelming feeling of loss but also an irresistible instinct of life. Just as the title of the trilogy suggests: ´Sad Face|Happy Face´. One of the secrets behind Lauwers’ theatre is that he simply let his actors speak directly to their audience. They tell stories, interrupt and take it out on each other, dance or sing – with an emotionally and physically intensity but also authentically at rest in themselves and with the reality they create on stage right here, right now. That is something that can stir up your anxiety and hunger for life. Just look at how the chief actress, the 70 year old Viviane De Muynck becomes the foundation under it all in the first half of ´Isabella’s Room`. As the worn out life veteran, Isabella, she tells her life story with a fag in her mouth, with her large bosom expanded and surrounded by an army of archeological objects that in themselves exude of enclosed past. But what are we to make of the peculiar story that comes out of this woman’s mouth? At the same time kitsch and moving, flabby and spicy with stuck-up jokes about surrealists: something about a childhood full of death, a deserts prince and the whole line of 67 lovers. And suddenly the madam and a young man, who moreover is her grandchild, are kissing passionately. Like many other characters in the trilogy this guy is by the way dead and death becomes the underlying organ tone. As if the most natural thing in the world Lauwers let the dead walk into and blend with the other stories. Here the drunken father is painfully plastered on his existential tour-de-force and dances a whelpy moonwalk. After that they all, including Isabella with all her wounds of time but also a bold appetite on life, throw themselves into a wonderfully spell-binding dance, barking and waging of tails. All of them like dogs longing for happiness! It is confusing this whole morass of stories punctured by references to world wars, Hiroshima, Africa … None the less it is a supreme, cross-cultural suggestion of how to bring storytelling back to theatre. Yes, Lauwers did engage in fragments and distance in his early work but here we see another believe in the force of the narrative and its capacity to move the audience. You are supposed to get a little lost in the stage plot, exactly like the persons themselves are lost in their lives and let themselves get distracted by a dance, get caught up by a whispering song in the corner so that it grows into the redeeming choir of the community. Little by little and despite the confusion it all gather to a larger story about being human today. Against all odds. With the ambition of holding the small human stories up against the larger historic reality `Sad Face|Happy Face´ reminds me of another landmark of modern theatre, Robert Lepages’ seven hour long `The Seven Streams of the River Ota´ (1994-96). Whereas Lepage, however, is a visual conjurer Lauwers is the kind of artist who makes magic with physicality and musicality. In `Isabella’s Room´ he moves about in his white suit on the edge of the stage like a discrete conductor leading the current. What he does as a director is exactly to orchestrate and sculpt with words, bodies and music so that the web of stories get together in a rhythmic whole with challenging many layers and contrary friction of the senses. In the midst of death and despair it will make you high also in the finale, `The Deer House´. As the tepid dark zone of the trilogy `The Lobster Shop´ is not, however, able to gather the pieces with the same intensity. But then again, here we’re dealing with an unbearable stagnation of a couple having lost their son. The stories faint but left is a vision of the future of man: a new cloned son as an emptily laughing shell, a humanoid lobster monster. In `The Deer House´ you fully understand what all those animals – dogs, lobsters, dancing bears – are doing in the trilogy. Here rubber pale deer corpses pile up on stage. Oh yes, this is “nature of modern man” in the sense that you can almost smell it during the story of a Kosova family massacre added a bit of freaky Disney fairytale. The vital, soothing corporality which flows through the whole trilogy undoubtedly has its raw zones of taboo and grotesque unpleasantness. The grown up grand child who Viviane De Muynck kissed in the beginning is replaces by another: a small corpse in a way too colorful bag. The mortal have a lot to carry. The trilogy represents one, big Requiem. Still it holds a hope in all the warmth that glows from the group on stage. In spite of the fact that some of them must freeze the collective is constantly moving. They sing it with an indomitable insistence on life – quite ambiguous: “We just go on and on and on …”

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