Sunday, May 6, 2007

Letter from Belgium III

I’m just about to leave Belgium in a few hours, but I thought I’d write, before I did, about one of the two plays I’ve seen since I last posted. Both plays were part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (yes, one word, in that amusing way beloved by Teutonicinfluencedculture everywhere). This particular play was That Night Follows Day, directed by Tim Etchells (he who is mainly associated with “Forced Entertainment,” in England), produced by Victoria, a Flemish-language theatre company based in Ghent. It was performed entirely in Flemish (barring a couple of somewhat startling English profanities---e.g., "motherfucker" and "fucking asshole"---but with surtitles in French and English) by seventeen children aged 8 to 14, and it was one of the most arresting and provocative pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

The set was designed to resemble a school gym, but essentially the entire play was presentational, the children speaking to us in a frank, sometimes simple, but sometimes more accusatory manner which resembled, vaguely, “Self-Accusation” by Peter Handke (which I recently read on the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Kim Renders). The play began with the seventeen children (eight boys and nine girls) moving into line (heels on a painted line) facing the audience, at first silently. They were relaxed, unaffected, natural, gazing out at the audience in a way that seemed, from the beginning, to challenge all the layers of affectation we had accrued over the years. Even the youngest, a tiny, adorable eight-year old girl, possessed an apparent comfort and self-assurance for the possession of which I know some adults would kill. Then they begin speaking, at first in chorus (these first lines are taken verbatim from the website:, although they would eventually separate into individual voices:

You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep. You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them. You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much. You try to tell us about the world. You explain to us what love is. You explain to us the meaning of war. You kiss us while we are asleep. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.

Tim Etchells with three of the performers, answers questions. (Sorry, there were no production photos on line that I could upload, but look here:

As Tim Etchells explained at the Q&A afterwards, the assertions were meant to be, in a way, questions, which asked: “Do you do this? If so, why do you do this?” Now these first assertions were fairly innocuous. (Although, how could any of us be entirely comfortable with either “You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them” or “You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much,” in which surely we conceal something even from ourselves?) But when it comes to “You tell us an edited version of the truth. You leave out information. You pick and choose what we should know,” there is more discomfort. And, after all the “You tell us ‘keep quiet.’ You tell us ‘stay still.’ You say ‘no!’” (this latter assertion building to an enraged chorus that makes one see how the rearing of children is as surely a mutilation of nature as the pruning of a cherry tree), one can’t help but twitch a bit as we move from “You say ‘the neighbours are just a bunch of bastards’” (the adorable tiny eight-year old girl) through to “You say ‘Whites are assholes. Blacks are stupid. Foreigners are lazy.’” For, as much as we might cluck and frown over these ideas ordinarily, presented as such, it is clear that that they are part of a continuum that leads inexorably from our incautious and ungenerous utterances.

Perhaps what was most refreshing in the show was the almost total absence of apparent self-service and affectation among the performers. I don’t mean to say that children are naturally devoid of such characteristics ⎯ indeed, I would say they display these qualities more nakedly than adults (perhaps because more ingenuously). But Etchells has somehow persuaded these children to simply come forward and say what they had to say as if they meant it; and the raw effect was to bestow a sense of depth and uncanny authority upon the children. In fact, the only time when there was the least hint of "falseness" was, just barely, when they were behaving obstreperously, "as children do."

But my main point is that there was no assuming of some vague “performative” quality with no purpose but to revel in “performativeness,” which I have seen destroy so many productions which dabble in “big questions.” Instead, every word had a specific meaning, and although the whole was totally extirpated from any naturalistic context, it was, nevertheless, a stark and thoughtful performance of one of the central truths of our civilization: how we pass on, independently of genes, what we already are to the generations who are to be.


Antonella said...

Sounds like you enjoyed some magic afterall - theatrical and geographical and it turnned out better than a rainny day in Metz. (It was rainning so hard here it must have been rainning in Metz - and the rain is 'such a downer'-) I'll be in Toronto PER TRE GIORNI! (gotta stop this jetsetting!) at the end of the month. I'll stand on my parents veranda and wave 'east'.

La Otra Gente said...

A beautiful write-up, thanks so much.