Bestselling war story is moving on stage too
Filip Tielens - De Standaard (8 December 2017)


War and Turpentine on stage? It has to be the challenge of this theatre season. The stage version starts rather stiffly, but as a result of a brilliant invention by the director Jan Lauwers and a magnificent Viviane De Muynck, it progresses towards a moving end. Mission accomplished.

They are lying ready on a small table, the two notebooks in which Urbain Martien wrote down his life story in his latter days. Seventeen years of work and 600 pages of handwritten notes, delving ever deeper into the trenches of his memories. It provided his grandson Stefan Hertmans with unique source material for his successful novel War and Turpentine, which his bosom friend Jan Lauwers in his turn used as the raw material for this stage adaptation.

Lauwers has kept the structure of the book, but has seriously fiddled around with the narrative angle. He filtered out two personal voices: Hertmans’ quest and the grandfather’s first person accounts of his life and the war. Instead, Viviane de Muynck tells the story in the third person. It takes a little time to get used to this more detached approach. Whereas the book immediately touches the heartstrings, in this stage version the empathy and emotion take a little longer to appear.

Scenes permeated with beauty

In fact De Muynck is the only person who speaks in this two-hour play. The other Needcompany performers act out her stories in the background. Fortunately this does not result in a literal puppet-theatre, but in scenes permeated with beauty.

For instance, in the first part, about Urbain’s youth, you see the dancers hard at it as workers in the iron foundry. This involves a lot of excited commotion: progress is after all banging its loud drum at the gates of the 20th century. Unfortunately this also leads Lauwers to rush faster through part one than is necessary.

Choreographic combat

But the performance improves as it moves on. The war chapter is cleverly done. Just as Hertmans describes the horror of the battlefield in all its details, Lauwers wants to make us feel them. The choreographed brawls look fierce and painful. The violence makes an impression, but it is in fact stripped of most of the context and anecdote associated with the First World War. This is a universal struggle that could take place anywhere, not only in the Westhoek.

When the breathing, dance and music go into overdrive, they take you to the edge of your seat. The interaction between art forms in which Needcompany has always excelled works well here. Sometimes the musicians Alain Franco (piano), Simon Lenski (cello) and George van Dam (violin) themselves end up as soldiers in the turmoil of battle, while in the meantime trying to play the superb new compositions by Rombout Willems on their revolving platform.

Then there is Benoît Gob, who embodies Urbain Martien and is constantly copying paintings on the sidelines: a beautiful young girl, a skull, a bouquet of flowers, a naked woman from the back. There is a sharp contrast between the soldier he was by necessity (‘war’) and the painter he had wanted to be (‘turpentine’).

The only one who moves between the front of the stage, with De Muynck and Gob, and the war raging on at the back, is Grace Ellen Barkey. As a nurse, she limps through every scene, getting raped along the way, staunching the blood from wounds, and helping the dying. She is an allegory of mercy, the healing power of time – an interesting addition that Lauwers makes to the book.

Women on top

But Lauwers saves his cleverest change for the third part, about the post-war years. All at once, De Muynck abandons her neutral position as narrator. She turns out really to be Gabrielle, Stefan Hertmans’ grandmother and the wife of Urbain Martien. But also the sister of Maria Emelia, Urbain’s great love, from whose early death he never recovered and whom he always continued to desire in his thoughts and his paintings.

In Lauwers’ version, the women, who in Hertmans’ novel are only secondary characters, suddenly become pivotal to the story. So when De Muynck, who in this third part is at the top of her game, reads from the notebooks about Urbain’s sexual hardships, she is actually talking about her own character. This is simultaneously humorous and tragic.

In this way, in the last forty-five minutes a calm and sensitivity descends that is lacking in the rest of the play. This perhaps means this War and Turpentine is not a perfect stage adaptation, but it is certainly a powerful, clever and highly individual version which is ultimately profoundly moving.

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