Shame and ambiguity
Luk Perceval talks to Thomas Irmer about the core issues in his Amsterdam stage adaptation of J. M. Cotzees’s novel “Disgrace“
von Luk Perceval und Thomas Irmer
Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2019: Luk Perceval (07/2019)
Luk Perceval, how did you come up with the idea of bringing J. M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace” to the stage at Toneelgroep Amsterdam in 2011?
Naturally I knew him as a Nobel laureate, but to be honest I hadn’t read anything by him. Then Peter Van Kraaij, the dramaturge at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, suggested I try “Disgrace”. I read the novel in a trance, because it is more than moving. I immediately had an idea for a theatrical adaptation, because it is written in a very cinematic way. Not just the dramaturgy, but in the way it captures major conflicts through characters who are in fact quite ordinary. For me this novel is a sort of Faust in South Africa. So I decided on it very quickly, but Coetzee had never given his permission for a dramatisation before. We were not the first to come up with the idea and so, together with the actor Josse de Pauw, who was very committed to this project, we started writing a working version, with the primary aim of coming up with a stage language that transforms descriptive literature into language experienced by the characters. Coetzee then read this adaptation and very quickly gave his OK.
The multi-faceted nature of Coetzee’s deceptively simple style must have been a particular challenge. It doesn’t surprise me that he did a doctorate on Beckett’s prose – he too learned from the great master.
It also reminded me of Jon Fosse. Both are writers whose work depicts the great inner turbulence of their characters with a certain objectivity. But it was basically a question of finding the theatrical frame in which we could bring the book to the stage in a way that preserves its great potential. For me, David Lurie’s hearing before the university commission was the concrete theatrical situation that allowed us to find a through line and establish a framework. This hearing at the end of the first act concentrates the story without providing a particularly clear account of what came before – so it is truly dramatic and it unleashes the two great themes: violence and double standards. Lurie is initially protected by his position and his title of professor. He believes he is unassailable. In any case that’s how he conducts himself before the commission. He expects to assert his status even if it is proven that he forced a student to sleep with him. When the same thing happens to his daughter later, albeit in a much more drastic act of rape, he of course sees it as something different – and this question, in its meaningful nuances, is something every audience member has to confront.
For him his actions constitute a routine seduction, not rape.
But it is clearly an abuse, and one derived from his social position of power. And Lurie knows that, too. With his daughter, he would kill the culprit for it. I find these paradoxes totally fascinating, because it is ultimately a question of which conception of humanity you perceive. Coetzee reinforces this by having Lurie, now a former professor, arriving at an animal shelter where dogs are put down, where he wants to give the dogs a more “humane” death. This takes the form of him sparing the dogs, who are already dead, from being dismembered before they’re incinerated. Here Coetzee is drawing a parallel between humans and animals, because he also shows how the animal is punished, how it suffers for its instincts. The boundaries between humans and animals begin to dissolve. On the one hand this instinct is ours as well, on the other we are moral people – that is a major theme full of ambiguity. This contradiction is just as unanswerable as the one in “Hamlet” and that is why you can compare Coetzee’s book to classical theatre. That’s really one of the reasons we go to the theatre: to encounter these questions for which there is no answer.
The story is highly concrete, but it was read as an allegory for post-Apartheid South Africa. But you really can’t get around this concept of ambiguity – everything can be viewed from different moral perspectives, depending on the weight you give to historical disgrace and the contradictions of the new order. Or are there actually unambiguous answers? Is there something like atonement in this story, even if Lurie does not feel it himself?
That is the question. In discussions afterward, some members of the audience said they saw him as purified. I do not entirely agree with that. Because when you see Lurie at the end, he cannot draw renewed power or renewed faith from all the loss, he cannot generate any new joy in life. On the contrary, he claims that life is a process of loss. Highly sober and realistic – this dog that is dying now is me. Every time. He does not expect any more from life. He is full of disappointment and bitterness.
And he is unable to complete his project of a Byron opera, another story of failure.
This Romantic material is his great passion, but at the same time he wonders – who needs it? Who is waiting for it? He laughs at his own Romantic pursuit of something great and immortal. This in turn finds its parallel in the fact that he is no longer able to feel anything from physical love. When he sleeps with his colleague in the animal shelter, he perceives it only as mutual help. At this point he feels no sympathy for others or for himself, nor does he solicit it from others. He lives isolated from everything and everyone, isolated from reality, even. And finally separated from life, for which you ultimately need to have a few illusions. But only death awaits him.
The irony is that this man was a communications lecturer, but only because the university’s department of literature was cut. This is mentioned only in passing, but like so much in Coetzee’s novel is of great relevance to the collapse of values that Lurie experiences along his journey.
An important keyword for Lurie is shame. This is something with which we were highly preoccupied. He pleads guilty to the commission, but when he is meant to disclose the details he refuses; this is none of your business! He has the feeling that he is a scapegoat for what many others would like to do, or which they at least dream about. That’s why in our production he stands there on stage compelled by a kind of rage and describes details of his sexuality to the audience, what it cost him and so on. It’s a provocation, because he would never talk about it like that. But now the situation on stage is turned around to the audience – that’s what you want to hear, right?
That is an aspect of stage-worthy shamelessness. Where does shame come into it for him?
He is aware that he has gone too far with this young student, Melanie. He is struggling with his own instinct; he knows he really has to put a stop to it, he even contemplates voluntary castration. That is shame. That’s why he fakes documents to cover it up. He does not want to be caught.
Did the production in Amsterdam evoke shame on the part of the audience, as descendants of Dutch colonialists?
Coetzee is very present in Holland, partly because he has Dutch roots. There he represents open confrontation with this past as opposed to Calvinist repression. He plays a very important part there. But for the production it was also important that we cast three actors of colour and I then got them to say their lines in Afrikaans. The whites speak the Dutch of today, the blacks the Dutch of the colonial age, which of course was not their language at all. So the Dutch audience enters into a direct relationship with the narrative through these linguistic variants. With part of their own story as well, which of course would otherwise remain somewhat abstract. Unfortunately, this was something audiences couldn’t really pick up on in our guest performances in Germany. It is more or less like nineteenth-century German meeting the language of the present, but with much clearer connotations of what this older language, Afrikaans, which is spoken in South Africa to this day, means historically in this context.
How was it received?
The audience and the press were very positive because, I believe, it touches on another, current discourse; today, many people are convinced that getting involved in Africa generally benefits the continent, but they still go there to rule. If you cannot rule, things can get dangerous. From that perspective, of course, it reaches beyond South Africa and extends almost to the whole continent. That’s why the potential for violence is particularly great in South Africa, because while the political conditions have radicalised, they maintain many of the same social practices in everyday life. In the shopping malls you see a lot of black service personnel for a predominantly white clientele. When I witnessed that in the mid-nineties, I felt shame.
There is a theatre scene in the novel. In playing a part Melanie seems to regain her self-confidence, or maybe she gains it for the first time. Did that interest you too?
But Coetzee depicts that in sharp contrast which actually flatly suggests the kind of escapist helplessness with which theatre confronts the problems of society. Lurie’s house is looted, he’s still on his downward trajectory, but Melanie is now in a popular comedy about a hair salon. For me, the theatre scene is part of Lurie’s nightmare before he returns to the animal shelter. He is no longer a part of this familiar culture of urban pleasures. But we cannot say where he belongs now.
How did the production change in the version you staged in Munich at the Münchner Kammerspiele in 2013? What was actually different about the production because of the German context?
That whole link between language and the colonial past was something we couldn’t bring to bear in the Munich version, because there is no equivalent in Germany. The language of the colonised is not present in Germany. On the other hand, every German audience knows where notions of superiority can potentially lead, and not just in Africa. In that sense, the Munich audience was just as shaken by the material and its subject matter.