The stage version of ‘War and Turpentine’ is a magnificent lie
Els Van Steenberghe - Knack (11 December 2017)


Jan Lauwers has told a lie. And this in the press package for his very own production! He said that he was going to make a two-hour performance ‘by mutilating a masterpiece’. A terrible lie! His War and Turpentine is by no means a mutilation of the book with which Stefan Hertmans enraptured the world in 2013.

Though the subject of the book is not of the sort with which one easily enraptures one’s fellow men. Hertmans set to work with the diaries his grandfather had filled. Urbain Martien survived an awful job in an iron foundry, the trenches of the First World War, a heart broken into a thousand pieces following the death of his great love, and also the Second World War. But he did not let all this misery get to him. He wrote and drew to calm his soul.

Hertmans moulded his grandfather’s suffering into masterfully sculpted sentences in which the beauty of the poetic language counterbalances the often harrowing content. This means that reading War and Turpentine is both a feast and a wake. And that is why it’s a masterpiece.

Lauwers does not mutilate this masterpiece, but translates it into other art forms. That’s right, not just one, but several art forms. Lauwers does not direct actors, but artists, and that sounds crazier than it is.

Grace Ellen Barkey totters across the stage in a nurse’s uniform that’s much too big and brings a lump to your throat throughout the whole play. The narrator Viviane De Muynck does what she has long mastered: she presents us with words with the nonchalance of a barfly and the sensitivity of a prima ballerina – and she can do the grands jetés, for sure. Cellist Simon Lenski, pianist Alain Franco and violinist George van Dam lurk, dressed up as soldiers, sit on a mobile stage-on-the-stage and play Rombout Willems’ composition, a powerful blend of gentle sorrow and acute chaos. The dancers Sarah Luz, Mélissa Guérin, Elik Niv, Maarten Seghers and Mohamed Toukabri stumble, bounce, trip, roll and romp through the whole thing.

This whole is divided up in the space. On the forestage, Benoît Gob plays the part of Martien, without saying a word. As well as being an actor, Gob is a gifted artist, and during the performance sits in his ‘studio’ painting and drawing. He creates charming scenes, women with superb hairdos and romantic white roses, that offer your eyes a little rest when the horror on the other, larger part of the stage becomes too much.

Sometimes the horror there does become too much. For once, in this production Lauwers does not make use of vivid colours and stirring rock ‘n roll songs. Last year, in his visual art work (in the Silent Stories exhibition) he was already tending towards the more subdued wood colours and perfectionist pen drawings. He here continues superbly in this same direction.

While the forestage represents a cramped but cosy studio, the location for painting, drawing, talking and, later, intrigue, death and cake-baking, the rear of the stage is bare. Dancers roll the musicians’ platform around, wooden panels bang against each other frightfully, for example when the war is being depicted by dancers who, in tattered soldier’s uniforms, engage in fist-fights with each other. But in the meantime, these belligerent types don’t bother the ballerina, who happily continues dancing.

This ‘in the meantime’ is crucial. What Hertmans does with his poetic pen, Lauwers does with his eye for compelling theatre. While the suffering is going on, beauty is created. When the horror becomes too much, you can fill up on hope by watching the cheerful ballerina or an actor painting beautiful flowers. Lauwers lets his audience do what Hertmans’ grandfather also did: escape into artistic beauty when reality becomes too raw.

The violence remains, but the beauty too. In this play, this powerful moral in Hertmans’ story is given a moving theatrical counterpart. Lauwers’ play is an ode to the book and at the same time prompts one to plunge into the book... once again. What is more, this production reveals that Lauwers is a master who, with touchingly abundant respect for Hertmans’ masterpiece, builds a masterpiece of his own. One that enraptures you just as much.

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