Conflict, authenticity, corporality, the obscene and the sublime, the horror and the beauty, war and turpentine. Jan Lauwers and Needcompany create an emotional hammer blow that keeps on resonating.
The origins of this story are well known. Thirty years ago, the writer, poet, essayist and novelist Stefan Hertmans was given notebooks by his grandfather in which the latter had recorded his life. In them he encountered a boy who had dreamt of becoming an artist, but who had been ground down by an era dominated by poverty and war. War and Turpentine is a history of war, a family history, a portrait of an era, a story of terror and catharsis, about dealing with trauma, and about the consolation that art can provide.
To bring an epic like this to the stage, a literary work that is nowhere near being a theatre script, seems almost impossible. This can only be achieved by someone with two key characteristics: the courage to make radical choices and exceptional professional skill – two qualities that Jan Lauwers has in spades.
Choosing is losing is winning
The first choice he makes is to immediately do away with the shadow of the writer that might hang over the play. He takes the radical step of eliminating the writer by omitting from the story not only his physical, but also his textual presence: his philosophical reflections which made the horrific moments in the book more tolerable. This leaves only conflict, which is the mainspring of theatre: the conflict with a ruthless industrial world, the conflict that arises between reality and the different way that this reality manifests itself in art, the conflict with the horror of war, and the conflict of unrequited love. This is used as a starting point for tapping into different themes. What is authenticity, veracity, genuineness? Are we driven by the era in which we live, or do we have choices? Why are both the sublime and the obscene to be found inside us?
The second choice is the narrative perspective. No Stefan Hertmans, no grandfather, just a single voice on stage: that of Viviane De Muynck. She tells the story in the third person, or so it would seem. Her voice is the only one you hear for two whole hours.
The third choice is that of decentralisation. Viviane De Muynck tells her story at the front of the stage, whilst Needcompany acts out her stories in the background. To the side of the stage is Benoît Gob, who plays the grandfather Urbain Martien and who draws and paints throughout the performance. The musical trio, comprising a piano, a cello and a violin, is continually shifted around on a small, moveable stage; and Grace Ellen Barkey, as a nurse and angel of history, limps around all over the place.
What is retained is the triptych format, with three clear sections. The youthful years during which the prelude to the war is already taking shape, the war years themselves, and life – where possible and whatever is left of it – afterwards.
Prelude to war
I have not yet completely made up my mind about whether the beginning of part one is actually rather detached, or whether it is just a question of getting used to Viviane De Muynck’s unexpected third-person narrative. To be certain, I’ll have to see the piece a second time (something that I looking forward to, by the way). Yet this feeling rapidly ebbs away due to the haunting story, in which the harshness and the danger (and the destructive power) of the industrial blast furnaces is expressed. In one simple tale, it becomes clear how the industrialisation of the 19th century foreshadows what is going to come; the change in the nature of warfare in the 21st century has its roots here. In a rural economy, where everything is on a smaller scale, even the agricultural labourer, the servant, has his value. Even if his usefulness is akin to that of an ox or a horse, people nevertheless take care of their animals. In an industrial, urbanised landscape with an endless supply of workers, that changes. A labourer who is crushed or burnt by the blast furnaces is simply replaced by a new one. This carelessness with the human body, with humanity, was ultimately translated into the terms under which war was waged. Cannon fodder: there is plenty more where that came from. The obscene is already fully present.
But so too is the sublime, through the introduction to art, the revelation of that magnificent monster, in the stunning scene in which a kind of art juggernaut unfolds. At first sight, this appears to be a grotesque being, composed of raw, almost mechanical limbs, with a portrait of the Virgin Mary as its head. Attached to cables, it rises up and comes to life in a crazily beautiful moment. Deep inside me, some fibre of my being recognised and remembered that moment, the first revelation of the sublime.
The horror, the horror
Part two begins with a cold, almost casual announcement. Gavrilo Princip murders Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Great War begins. As this is being communicated, the painter takes away the large, distinct presence of the painting of a crucified Christ at the edge of the stage and puts it on the cupboard, back to front so that it is no longer visible. There is no longer room for the son of God, who took mankind’s suffering upon himself. The full weight of suffering is shifted back onto mankind’s shoulders, and it is as heavy as lead.
And the voice of Viviane De Muynck is silenced, as if there was no longer room for a human voice. There are still words, but they are silent, projected onto the wooden panels at the back like idiosyncratic actors.
The actors or performers from Needcompany now take over and for 25 minutes show us the atrocities and horror of the war in highly physical scenes that are bursting with raw physicality. The scenes at the beginning still seem stylised, almost dance-like, like the way violence is always portrayed in blockbuster movies. But the piece becomes steadily more raw, as if the actors themselves are being dragged into the orgy of obscenity. Whether it concerns sexuality or violence, the obscene is always physical. Obscenity is when human beings are reduced to body parts. At a certain point, they stand there as children of a cruel god, chests bared and arms spread out, almost as though they are being crucified. Measured purely in minutes, this is perhaps not a particularly long scene, but its raw violence certainly makes it feel long. I can still see and hear the blows on the wooden walls that truly feel like cannon fire, the belt being unfastened and the angel yelling during the rape scene, and Sarah Lutz’ continuous trembling as a result of shell shock.
It wasn’t possible to run away from this. Viviane De Muynck sits at the front of the stage throughout the scene saying nothing. She simply watches, stares. Hers is a single-minded gaze full of pain and horror. No, those eyes do not help us to flee from the horror of the war behind her; they only serve to reinforce it.
At the same time, the whole authenticity of the story is encapsulated in this scene of war. What is real and what is not? There is a choreography, but at the same time it is one where the brakes have been tampered with. You suddenly notice that there are coded signals, tapping on a particular place to indicate that it is going too far, that it is hurting too much. That such signals exist between the performers signals that they frequently cross the boundary of what is permissible. During the performance, this kind of smack in the face hits too hard; really hits. With real pain, real tears as a consequence. And real anger, real hitting back. Is this more authentic? And what about the role of the spectator, the voyeur. Are you more or less obscene if the violence that you see is real or fake? And what if at a certain point, bodies that are violently rubbing up against one another make you think of lust? Or that the sublime can lurk in the obscene?
So the end of the war is not a glittering occasion: after everything that has happened it’s not that simple. The smile on the faces is grotesque, goes too far. It’s no longer really possible to simply smile, simply be happy. So you create a smile, imitate a smile. A reason for authentic joy does not lead to joy.
‘The truth of life is often hidden in places that one does not associate with authenticity. Life is more subtle in these things than people’s morality and their inflexibility. Life works like this copyist painter, with pretence representing reality.’
In the third part, Viviane De Muynck appears as the grandmother, Gabrielle, Urbain’s wife, and Maria Emelia’s sister. Maria Emelia is the woman that Urbain wanted to marry, his real true love. His authentic love, here in the sense of unique and irreplaceable. The irony of fate is that she dies in the flu epidemic which spread rapidly in the mass gatherings held to celebrate the end of the war. Her death is portrayed in another highly physical scene in which her death rattle chills you to the bone. And Gabrielle keeps on telling her story, about her husband, the shadow of her sister, her sex life. How Urbain copied Velasquez’ Venus with her sister’s face in the mirror. And how the only authentic painting that Urbain, a copyist, has ever made, is a portrait of her. Authentic love is hidden in the copy; and hidden in the authentic art is the falsehood of love.
As the story draws to a conclusion, Needcompany’s actors tidy up the stage until there is nothing left apart from the actors themselves. Arranged on the musicians’ platform as in Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. These are people shipwrecked by the era they lived in, by life. Over the top, boys!
And there’s this, too. The music is also a vital and equal part of this all-embracing performance. Rombout Willem’s compositions are stunning; and Alain Franco (piano), Simon Lenski (cello) and George van Dam (violin) are not only fantastic musicians, but also fellow soldiers in the fray.
Without a doubt, this piece is carried by women. Viviane De Muynck is a phenomenon and her voice never lets me go. Grace Ellen Barkey as an angel is the perfect link between worlds, and watching Mélissa Guérin and Sarah Lutz made me catch my breath. Their violence filled me with fear, their grace touched me, and I was reduced to tears by their pain: in other words, I fell in love with them.
I don’t award stars to performances. However if I was obliged to do so, then I would say: look at the sky on a clear night and feel how it sparkles!
Just one final comment: it is a great pleasure to experience a performance like this in a beautiful hall like the Bourla. And the staff are brilliant. We should never disregard the sublime in the everyday.
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