Stage adaptation of ‘War and Turpentine’ by Jan Lauwers: a gesamtkunstwerk
Jan De Smet - De Morgen (9 December 2017)


Intensely dramatised narrative based on an original staging concept and performed by a strong cast.

War and Turpentine was written by the novelist, poet and essayist Stefan Hertmans. Just before his death, Hertmans’ grandfather, Urbain Martien, gave his grandson a series of notebooks. Three decades on, these 600 pages form the basis for the novel. The family saga is a tale of poverty, the horrors of war, and unhappiness in love. The main character sublimates all his setbacks by taking on the modest role of the meticulous copyist who finds peace in trying to emulate the great masters.  


The book is better and other bland platitudes

Jan Lauwers has chosen to disregard the assumption that any film or theatre adaptation is fighting a losing battle with the original. It demands a certain hubris to begin working on a masterpiece that has received the attention it deserves both in Belgium and abroad in the form of nominations, prizes and translations. To translate a meaty novel of more than 300 pages into an enjoyable two-hour performance requires not only daring, but also a considerable amount of skill – and Lauwers has both in spades.


Lauwers’ War and Turpentine is a gesamtkunstwerk, for which he has tapped into three sources: words, music and dance. Initially these are three babbling brooks, but over the course of the performance they flow together into a single powerful maelstrom. In no time at all, you forget that you are watching a monologue on stage.

Viviane De Muynck was assigned the role of the female narrator, which is different to the narrative perspective in the book. From her dominant position at the front of the stage, she delivers a haunting performance. Standing motionlessly erect, she delivers her lines empathically, in which acting sometimes crosses over into casually reading from the source texts. At times she becomes a first-person narrator who is sucked into the story beyond her death.   

The things that she is narrating at the front of the stage are mirrored behind her back in music and dance. The choreography and Rombout Willems’ compositions for piano, cello and violin undulate along with the drama of the events. Things sometimes become very fierce, with streams of projected words, screeching musical scores, and a frenetic choreography with hand-to-hand combat and dancers that crash into the rear walls and screens. 

One gimmick is the presence of the artist Benoît Gob, who sits on the sidelines creating charcoal drawings in the silent role of the ever-present grandfather.

Although imagination and abstraction are given free rein throughout the performance, many of the scenes are soberingly realistic. The death throes of the adored Maria Emelia is one such explicit scene.

The downside of War and Turpentine is its somewhat chaotic nature, and the long-windedness that creeps in when it continues in the same vein for too long.

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