Are we not drawn onward to new erA. Ontroerend Goed (Belgium) in Sydney Festival at Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 16-20 2024.
Ontroerend Goed in coproduction with Spectra, Kunstencentrum Vooruit Gent, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Adelaide Festival & Richard Jordan Productions Ltd
The performance features William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’ by Spectra Ensemble
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Director: Alexander Devriendt
Angelo Tijssens / Giovanni Brand; Charlotte De Bruyne / Leonore Spee
Jonas Vermeulen / Ferre Marnef; Karolien De Bleser / Britt Bakker
Maria Dafneros / Kristien De Proost; & Vincent Dunoyer / Michaël Pas
Musicians: Spectra Ensemble
Tille Van Gastel/Katrien Gaelens (flute); Pieter Jansen/Wilbert Aerts (violin)
Bram Bossier (tenor violin); Peter Devos (cello); Frank Van Eycken (percussion)
Rik Vercruysse/Simon Haspeslagh (horn)
Dramaturgy: Jan Martens; Scenography: Philip Aguirre
Light, video & Sound: Jeroen Wuyts & Seppe Brouckaert
Lighting Design: Babette Poncelet; Technical assistance: Brecht, David & Pepijn
Costumes: Charlotte Goethals
Composition: William Basinski; Arrangements: Joris Blanckaert
Finishing off statue: Daan Verzele, Jelmer Delbecque, Jesse Frans
Photography: Mirjam Devriendt; Internships: Morgan Eglin, Tim De Paepe
Many thanks to: Ilona Lodewijckx, Luc De Bruyne, Matthieu Goeury, Simon Stokes, Björn Doumen, Les Ballets C de la B, everybody involved in the pre-study 'koortsmeetsysteemstrook' @ Toneelacademie Maastricht & our fantastic test-audiences.
I’m sorry to be such a philosophical sourpuss, but when a theatre company tries to take a quotation from Kierkegaard literally – “Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards” – I suspect a kind of intellectual self-indulgence, and theatrical game-playing. Perhaps I’m not a good member of a fantastic test-audience.
As is my wont, I chose not to pre-research this production, preferring to see it fresh without preconceptions. Powerful theatre depends on actors having at their disposal a script, directing, sound, lighting, costumes, make-up and set design supporting them to create emotional responses in us – watching – as we find we can identify with characters, even those we would dislike if we met them in real life.
This is how theatre helps us understand our life anew.
For the first 40 minutes of Are we not drawn onward to new erA, we watched apparently disparate characters, who may or may not have known each other before meeting here, sometimes speaking in an apparently incomprehensible language (which I took not to be Flemish or Dutch nor Belgian French, but with occasional sounds that might have come from English) – and who mysteriously destroyed a small tree, floated a small helium balloon away up into the stage lighting, had the whole stage covered with plastic bags that mysteriously fell from where the balloon had gone, while two characters shared eating an apple from that clearly not-an-apple tree – and then even more mysteriously brought on stage a head and large sections of a four-metre plastic statue, and with great effort put it together and raised it to standing position.
Characters behave very much as individuals, with perhaps the apple eaters the only ones developing what could become a personal emotive relationship.
Not exactly exciting to watch beyond some sense of satisfaction in achieving the standing statue of a male figure. Where might this story go, and what might it mean?
I had been told beforehand that the show lasted 85 minutes.
But at 40 minutes the main stage curtain was closed. One woman actor came out onto the apron and spoke in English, mentioning something like life having to be lived bit by bit. Then the curtain opened to reveal an image of her apparently on stage where she had been just before the curtain had closed.
As soon as I realised I was seeing a screen the full size of the stage proscenium and that it was beginning to show the second last position of the characters, I understood that I would be watching a technically quite astounding video which would go backwards for the second 40 minutes.
Would this be more interesting than the first 40 minutes? Well, there were some moments when an action going backwards was surprisingly realistic-looking, some were quite amusing – but how would our understanding of life develop, when all the show became was a guessing game of trying to remember what we had seen before?
To make this entertaining, would there be an upbeat, light-hearted music accompaniment? Well, all we heard was a boring constantly repetitive orchestral sound that offered nothing to add to what we were watching. The unknown gentleman next to me began to fidget and I found my brain switching off, waiting for some new development to wake me up.
It never came until the end, where apparently all that had been on stage had disappeared in reverse. Then the screen arose to reveal the mess still there from the live performance, and the live actors appeared for a conventional happy curtain call and the audience dutifully applauded.
On the Ontroerend Goed website, a reviewer, Els Van Steenberghe is quoted:
This is one of the most beautiful, most intelligent and committed performances Ontroerend Goed has ever made, on the boundary of visual art and theatre, poetry and politics. The piece looks marvelous [sic] (but sounds brutally inaccessible) during the first twenty minutes. These, however, are necessary to enable the masterful twist. Only then the performance turns into a clear, miraculous statement about how we threaten to destroy ourselves and our world.
Well, I got the idea watching the ruined tree and the plastic bags in the first half, but taking Kierkegaard literally backwards was an even less enlightening experience than reading this meangless quote in the first place.
To keep to the European theatrical culture, I think the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen did a much more threatrically powerful job of making a clear statement about how we threaten to destroy ourselves and our world in his 1882 play An Enemy of the People than the Belgians have done in this pretentiously named Are we not drawn onward to new erA. Just read it backwards: it’s just a joke – gameplaying in reverse, when we need action in reality, and powerful theatre to help make it happen.