The charming swindler
Luk Perceval talks to Thomas Irmer about his conception of an artists‘ theatre
von Luk Perceval und Thomas Irmer
Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2019: Luk Perceval (07/2019)
Luk Perceval, with your latest production “Black/ The Sorrows of Belgium I: Congo”, which was staged at NTGent in March 2019, you have returned to an old theme: Belgium’s colonial history, which it still hasn’t processed. The cast of eight actresses and actors is highly multicultural. Does this correspond to a model of theatre that you, as artist-in-residence at NTGent, want to promote together with Milo Rau, the Artistic Director?
On top of that there is a black actress, Andie Dushime, playing the lead male role. Yes, that is actually something we want to promote here. We want to move away from typecasting. It should be much more about the personalities on stage, so that the presence of these actors also calls forth a different consciousness among the audience. The actors sometimes have lines that prove highly provocative when they are said by someone with Congolese roots, because it really lays bare the racism within society. That is in fact the idea for this theatre, and one of the reasons why I’m here. These opportunities are something I really missed in German city theatres. The model of the fixed ensemble in Germany is great on the one hand because it is also an expression of a certain utopia, on the other hand it is also very restrictive.
You have worked in Germany for twenty years and you have just declared that this period is at an end. If you were to sum it up, where do you see the advantages and also the disadvantages?
One of the advantages of the German city theatre is that there is continuity, which I find really important. There is a certain protection for the participants. This can result in a synergy that you don’t find anywhere else in the world. I would never argue for its abolition. On the contrary. It is just that this security, this protection costs a lot of money, which means – and this is definitely more the case now than it was twenty years ago – that the subsidies are no longer sufficient to keep the system open and to develop it further. I notice that many of these ensembles are getting smaller and smaller because there is not enough money. They then attract guests, often media stars, while the ensemble members get the smaller roles. In fact this is an international phenomenon. To survive, the city theatre exchanges its artistic and political function for commercial interests. But if you stick with the ensemble despite the difficult situation facing city theatres, and this is something I experienced at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, directors and actors have enough time and space to develop themselves – and thus the theatre itself, its language, its intelligence and its social resonance. Which is ultimately of greater artistic value than just staging an event. But everywhere you go – France, England, Italy – you see ensembles being dismantled. In Flanders, too, this is a big issue in the theatre world. Here, too, the idea of communal thinking and creating has been completely lost. This also reduces the social value of the theatre as an open space where you can call things by their names, without ideology or taboos, and in so doing prompt discussion in society. This potential is increasingly receding into the background, and that goes for Germany as well. The main thing is survival rather than a political position. What we are trying to do here is to bring this attitude, and provocation, to the fore. And we do it with far more modest financial means than the German theatres where I have worked. That’s why we have to limit ourselves. To begin with we only work with guests, and then we see whether this grouping is likely to evolve into an ensemble in the long term.
The facade of NTGent bears a banner with the inscription “The City Theater of the Future”. It’s a strong statement, but it still doesn’t say much about what is going on inside.
I think having an inscription like that on the front of the theatre is very daring. It is a slogan that could also become a boomerang. Maybe it is pitched too high, a bit pretentious even. But this much should be clear: I am artist-in-residence here, that means I have committed to the theatre for three years and each year I will be producing a part of my trilogy “The Sorrows of Belgium” on the main stage. Otherwise I teach yoga and I will have a workshop for any actors in the theatre who are interested. For me it’s about getting to know actors you otherwise never meet. I cannot claim that this house represents one hundred percent what I believe about theatre. I have no decision-making position in the management, I am an engaged guest.
Back in 2016 you developed the idea of an international theatre for the Flemish National Theatre in Brussels.
The idea for Brussels was basically the same one that we’re trying to implement here: a multicultural ensemble. Although I always think, OK, multiculturalism is one thing, but it must not be limited to that. It has to go much further. Why are there no disabled actors? When I was programme director for acting at the Theaterakademie Ludwigsburg, I heard about a candidate with a disability who was rejected by the jury during the entrance exams on the grounds that he would never be able to play Hamlet or Faust. Which I thought was totally ridiculous … We have to make the stage representative of society. That doesn’t just mean people with different skin colour. In a way, the debate about the meaning of the city theatre is reduced to fashionable headlines. The most absurd thing I heard about the appointment of the new Artistic Director of the Münchner Kammerspiele was that it definitely had to be a woman. I can understand that in the current context, but why do politicians not formulate the question like: what is most important for the city? What is important for the theatre? What kind of theatre does the city need? They don’t debate these things because there is no political interest, let alone trained expertise.
On the one hand you have the cultural policy agenda, on the other the artistic development of the theatre. For this reason I would align the entirely justified formula of “City Theater of the Future” with the artists’ theatre of the 21st century. It’s a term that attempts to bring the best of 20th century theatre into the present. The ensemble culture is, as we have already discussed, the first point, then the close connection with literature and finally the liberation of the actors, their conversion from cast performers to personalities on stage, which took place in the last third of the last century. You yourself became a writer in your German years. In drama especially, there has been something like a fusion of the functions of writer and dramaturge in conjunction with direction. I would see that as an approach for the artists’ theatre of today.
Certainly. But there are two elements that are mutually exclusive. On the one hand you have the structure itself, which over the years grew out of a theatre that had to be representative of the middle class and satisfy its nostalgic attachment to old forms. Unfortunately the production structure that emerged from this is completely outdated. There is a need to see classics on stage that exists to this day. Audiences would prefer to see “Hamlet” than read “Hamlet”. And they also want to see an interpretation that allows them to rediscover the work, experience new perspectives and thus change themselves and their own viewpoints. This need remains and it is completely legitimate. In that sense I do not agree with Milo when he says that the staging of a piece can only show twenty percent of the original, which is just as dogmatic as an approach that is faithful to the text. But the world has become much more democratised, we can all make our opinions known publicly, on the internet, in the newspaper, as comments. We are increasingly moving away from a world in which we are dictated to from on high.
And it is in this direction that theatre has to develop as well, it has to be far more open to contradictions, rid itself of old patterns and ways of working. Not in the sense that the actors are replaced by other specialists – even if reality is constantly explained to us by specialists. Rather, you have to challenge the actors to specialise even more in certain topics, like we’re doing now with “Black”, where the actors are involved as writers, supported by scholars and dramaturges, dancers and musicians as well as video artists. It is much like the way the editorial side of a newspaper functions these days – linked to numerous sources. In that respect, I can see something in Milo’s philosophy. The problem remains the legacy of the outdated theatre structure; that there are more people working in the apparatus than on stage, which limits the freedom and mobility of the theatre from the outset. The will to change is there, but the structure creates its own laws. Of course you don’t want to get rid of anyone, but today you see art becoming more and more reduced, because actors are being dismissed while the whole administration is set like concrete. The non-artistic staff in German theatres have the same labour laws as workers in the car industry, who as we know are the best-protected workers in Germany. But that also means that the theatre structures in Germany survive at the expense of artists and their art. At Thalia I would often say, why don’t we do less, so that we at least have more time to rehearse longer and more intensively, with less stress and pressure. So we have time to engage with things. Time to invite guests to rehearsals now and then, to get specialists involved. But it wasn’t a feasible request because then there would be less revenue, and then you would have to get rid of artists, because you can’t just terminate non-artistic staff as easily. Then I realised that ultimately all I was doing was serving the system to maintain it. Where instead the system should be there to serve the art and not vice versa. I found that very frustrating.
For Germany there is the formula – these numbers are rounded – that in the past twenty years twenty percent of arts positions have disappeared, but at the same time there are twenty percent more productions and performances. A crisis of overproduction.
Totally. And overload. That’s exactly what you feel and see everywhere. Many actors are completely worn out, they have no desire to rehearse at all. There is a lack of joy, of desire. Theatre work has become assembly line work. Terrible.
Could you describe what you see as your perfect actor? Maybe even different types of this ideal?
The ideal actor, the ideal actress, so here I mean both men and women, is someone who does not act (laughs), who in fact always proceeds from his own opinion, his own attitude. Every second he is on stage he is searching for his truth, his authenticity. This is not an actor who is there to serve, not at all. He is an actor who constantly questions himself, and not just on stage. That is the actor, the actress, I long for. The thing that probably distinguishes me fundamentally from other directors is that for me, the actor is not a communicator of ideas. An actor is a person. I’m intrigued and interested and moved by people, by actors, the emotional, energetic and spiritual connection with them, the intellectual exchange. So the actor needs to have personality, he is more than a marionette of my vision, because my vision, my inspiration is the people who stand before me on the rehearsal stage every day, and not the ideas that I have at home. If you think that these ideas are always expressed collectively, you’d be wrong. There is no collectivity, there is only the sum of individuals. I am concerned with the power of this individual.
How has your role of director changed in this context?
Early on I was much more concerned with implementing what I had in my mind. Now I explain my vision, my dreams, and wait to see how the actors respond. It is a way of working that came about at the Thalia, because there I had the luxury of many years of working with my own troupe. The Zola trilogy of “Love”, “Money” and “Hunger” was ultimately a highly intensive joint effort in which the narrative evolved out of the rehearsals. And if I notice it’s not working, I flip it over and start looking and spinning, until somehow I get a sense that there might be quality there. So I work intuitively with failure. In thirty years of making theatre, my trust in intuition has become much stronger.
How important are dramaturges now? In the theatre of the past twenty to thirty years, we have witnessed the position of dramaturge more or less merging with that of the director. Castorf, for instance, began as a dramaturge and became a director later on, and barely uses dramaturges for his conceptual work.
Depending on the working style, the dramaturgy is constantly in motion, constantly changing, written and erased, the author’s text is not an end in itself. The person speaking is the goal. In that sense, the dramaturge is also an ever-present partner, a team mate. But in my ideal world it would have to go much further, there would be public information activities in the rehearsals and talks with the participants, films, podcasts etc. This would open theatre up much more; it would promote discourse, engagement, a space with which you can identify emotionally and intellectually; so then you can bring in people, bring in the city, and they too can engage with us. In the ideal theatre of the future you wouldn’t have different departments any more. Sure, you need them to give structure to the theatre and to bring about what you want to do. But the engagement I would like to see has become far too small, far too narrow because of the pressure of work.
Are your stage design partners team mates in this sense?
All my years of working with Katrin Brack, Philip Bußmann and Annette Kurz have actually resulted in a kind of matter-of-factness. We no longer have to discuss whether we are searching for a space that suggests more than what you can see, a kind of projection surface. Spaces that liberate the imagination, but also spaces that are determined by the actors, by the people, physically, through language, through ideas. People are the epic centre of these spaces. Because I have been working with the same people for thirty years, we can give increasingly radical form to this way of thinking, from which we also derive greater enjoyment and strength.
Ultimately this consistency is also a distinguishing feature of the artists’ theatre.
Absolutely, in the end I always start by putting aside everything I know and looking at what is emerging on the rehearsal stage, and working with it. But of course to allow this not-knowing and uncertainty you also need a web of trust. And naturally you find that most often with colleagues who have been through a lot together over many years. You come to know the crises and phases you need to go through to achieve a certain result. For “Black” there are two actors with whom I had worked more than twenty years previously. They know that it takes this kind of procedure, this kind of searching and not-knowing, step by step, day by day. It may be that what we do today is no longer valid tomorrow.
Do you need these confederates to influence others as well?
A good football team has a balance of experience and youth. It’s the same in the theatre. At the Thalia Theater there was Barbara Nüsse, with whom I worked a lot, the most important actress for me because with her age and experience she was an example to the ensemble. She inspires and provokes the younger actors.
Let’s talk about “Front”, one of the most important productions of recent years. It contains many of the things that you continually emphasise as particularly desirable – multilingualism, singing, Annette Kurz’s stage design which was also an instrument for the percussionist Ferdinand Försch, but also the elemental experience of an historical catastrophe. Was this a sort of pointer to the future?
Absolutely, particularly because of my fascination for language in all its forms. I see language as a kind of music. Much more than an attempt to communicate rationally, language, just like body language, is an irrational, energetic search for understanding, and I am interested in this irrationality, in particular what drives it. For years it has been my ambition to develop a stage language with the actors, our own Esperanto.
A language that would be alien to German audiences at first – that was something I observed back in 2002 with “L. King of Pain” at the Schauspiel Hannover. The linguistic amalgam of that play works very well in Belgium, and in Switzerland, two countries where multilingualism is part of everyday life. Within the German theatre tradition, the development of a kind of stage Esperanto comes up against certain limits. In the preparation for the opening production in Hamburg, “The Truth about the Kennedys”, the Managing Director said “I wouldn’t use an English title because the German audience will think it’s a guest performance.” That really shocked me. This is in a world that is so networked through media, so “Americanised”. That made me realise what an ivory tower the city theatre is. I have had similar experiences at the Berlin Schaubühne, where I tried on several occasions to incorporate different German language styles and dialects into the plays, which was not exactly enthusiastically received by Schaubühne audience. In Germany dialect is part of popular theatre, not of Peter Stein’s holy Schaubühne. I wanted to get rid of this compartmental thinking.
Although the language standards on the German stage have really relaxed in the last two decades.
It has changed, that’s true. Nevertheless, subscription audiences find it difficult to listen to an actor who really speaks little German, or almost none. I experienced this in “The Grapes of Wrath” in Hamburg, in which Bert Luppens performed, a Dutchman who spoke German with an accent. And, sure, the Dutch accent sounded funny at times. But then they see as an amateur on stage, someone who is not to really be taken seriously. With that I finally realised that my true dream of creating an international troupe with actors from Russia, China or wherever, of inventing a language with them and thus expressing a kind of utopia, was something you can’t do in a city theatre.
On the other hand, you have given the German theatre unforgettable literary adaptations. The novels of Hans Fallada, to name one major example.
I was fascinated by Fallada because of his language, because he understands the fine art of immediately depicting a character with a few simple phrases, a few simple brush strokes. Because he gives his characters a typical sound, a typical rhythm. I don’t know many authors who have mastered this art. And then he tells stories that are very simple at first glance, but ultimately reveal a great complexity, something that I am always trying to do in theatre. Like Nō theatre, it’s about simple relationships that touch on something universal. Fallada’s characters have a depth and humour that you also find in Chekhov, because they are so contradictory, because they are so funny and horribly egotistical, so banal and recognisable. Fallada brought me closer to Germany, because through him I not only discovered the German soul, I also recognised the Belgian. This kind of cowardice with which he endows his characters is something you find everywhere. They are very often people with big mouths, but when it comes down to it, they’re small. His language and his stories are very sensual, and this sensuality is indispensable for the stage. It’s something I really value in Castorf’s productions. They are always extremely sensual and extremely irritating. Just shamelessly sensual and provocative. A mixture of disgust and fascination, to borrow from the great Heiner Müller. They express the contradiction of life, love and hate at the same time, that’s what makes life beautiful and incomprehensible. I find this contradiction with Fallada as well – characters who are in search of truth but who lie to each another at the same time. That’s what makes humans human, charming swindlers.
How did you discover Fallada?
Many years ago I saw “Little Man, What Now?” by Peter Zadek.
A production that ultimately only worked because Zadek and Tankred Dorst staged it as a revue.
At the time, I was really only interested in it as a spectacle, I didn’t take note of the writer at all. Then many years later there was a moment when I thought: I am working in Germany now, but what connects me with the Germans? A friend advised me to read Fallada, and it immediately and intensively sparked my imagination. Actually I found his stories completely Belgian. They are all losers, there are no heroes in Fallada.
Another writer whose novels you’ve presented in a cycle in the past was Émile Zola. How did that come about?
When I am invited to work somewhere, like in Ghent now, my first question is always: what makes sense in this place, what connects me to this city? So I got an invitation from the Ruhrtriennale. I have a problem with “glossy” festivals like the Ruhrtriennale, because you’re really investing a lot of money just to offer the same old cultural elite something a bit different from their usual venues. For years my ambition has been a theatre for all, a popular theatre that is not dependent on subscribers, and which also attracts football fans. So my first consideration was, what could you do in the Ruhr region to reach the people who live there? In Zola it’s all about industrialisation in the 19th century and everything that came with it. I only knew Zola from “Germinal”, but when I read his Rougon-Macquart cycle I discovered that although his style seems very old-fashioned, his themes and characters are very modern at the same time. His novels show where the roots of present-day neoliberalism lie. Johan Simons wanted me to do it as a series in the three years of his directorship.
Do these adaptations of great novels, some of them very radical, like “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass and “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, spring from a desire to move away from regular plays?
It is my deep desire is to create the texts for my productions myself, to let them emerge in rehearsals. This is something you can achieve more easily with narrative literature. Theatre texts soon constrict because they often require a concrete situation, while literature allows more freedom. I hardly read plays any more, I find most plays boring, because most theatre texts are built on recognisable dramaturgical principles and follow a predictable course. Rarely do I find the contradictions and the complexity I find in novels.
In September 2019 you will be staging Jon Fosse’s “Trilogy” as part of a Fosse Festival at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo.
What fascinates me about Jon Fosse’s “Trilogy” is not just the language, which is highly musical, because it’s redundant language, no – the same story is told almost the same way three times, but from different angles. And through repetition and musicality, it becomes like a song, a mantra, a prayer. It is very close to musical theatre. This too is something I tend to find in novels rather than theatre texts.
What language is the stage version of Fosse’s “Trilogy”?
In German, it had to be translated into Norwegian. For every novel adaptation you must always ask the question, from what angle, from which perspective are you telling the story? Perspective determines the concept, the idea, the goal. It was not so easy with Fosse because the novel occludes the narrator. Only at the end do you discover that it may be the grandchild who is now an old woman and reconstructing her family history. The text shows how we are compulsively susceptible to the repetition of certain patterns in our family history. Even if you are aware of the pattern you have very little influence over it. And the older you get, the more you become aware of these mechanisms and must accept them. This principle of repetition in all its facets is a phenomenon that preoccupies me more and more; the repetitive aspect of life, of energy, of thoughts, of emotions.
You have also dealt with other facets of aging – with dementia in “L. King of Pain” and “Molière”, most recently with cancer in “Grace and Grit”. What is so interesting about these issues in the theatre that you address them so intensively, in the form of a single character for instance?
What stories should we be telling nowadays? What are the topics that concern us? Of course there are the societal topics, like how Belgium deals with the Congo; it is high time that this country addressed that. But we also live in a society that is getting older. The fear of losing control, the fear of diseases such as cancer and depression are big issues that are barely addressed in theatre. There are so many taboo subjects in the field of ageing. The cancer theme of “Grace and Grit” was an attempt to address the disease and the fear of it in public, because ultimately it puts those affected by it on a siding, in complete isolation. After each performance, we always had a very lively discussion with the audience.
As for the subject matter, you can essentially think of it in two different directions: what are we collectively appalled by, what is the collective anger or fear – and how can we transform that into a positive, creative force through theatre? How do we find collective strength in the pain of the individual? Through shared humour? Through grief? Or, to think about it from the other direction: what is it that we dare not talk about, and what should we disclose? I find shame to be an interesting topic. We pretend that we live in a society where everything can be expressed. On the internet you can see everything and participate in all sorts of things. Meanwhile, twelve-year-olds have smartphones and watch porn and no longer know what normal sexuality is, they are totally confused about their physicality and what love actually means. There is so much fear in our so-called open culture. My nephew, who plays football and is 14 years old, showers in his underpants after training. In my time that would have been ridiculous. Meanwhile, however, shame has increased dramatically, along with the fear of being exposed on Facebook. Social media is making young people more prudish and fearful.
Belgium suffers from a collective sense of shame, but we are too cowardly to admit it. Too cowardly to apologise. After twenty years of working in Germany I know since returning to this country what it is to be Belgian. But it is not just a Belgian phenomenon. In the Sixties, John F. Kennedy was a hero, but everyone knew that he had had an affair with Marilyn Monroe and was married to Jackie. Barack Obama or Trump would immediately be nailed to the cross today in the same case, they would be gone. And yet we continue to believe that we have become freer and wiser? The lie that is put forward to us as an example and that we ourselves maintain, is a very interesting topic. Self-deception.
As a result of your work as a director in Germany you also have become a kind of cultural psychologist – or am I mistaken?
You could be right. Germany confronted me with great structures and demanded responsibility. When you work as a guest, you analyse what is happening to you and around you. And you become a lot more aware of the mechanisms of the culture. Perhaps it’s the advantage of the outsider.
Milo Rau on the other hand, as I discovered in his comments about his time in Belgium which has lasted a few years now, says that he values this creative dysfunctionality in Belgium. This is an interesting term. Valuing things that really do not work well.
Luckily we have enough Thomas Bernhards in this country. We can laugh out loud over that quote because we feel the same way. It is not for nothing that Belgium was born after an opera performance.
Riots broke out in Brussels in 1830 after “La muette de Portici” by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber.
Exactly. And an example of this non-functioning would be: I had my apartment renovated in Antwerp and I discovered that Belgian workers are worse than the Russians. Germany is blessed in that respect.
I would not necessarily call that a creative dysfunctionality.
Perhaps workers are not the ultimate criterion, but this laissez faire is something you find here on many levels. And of course, there is also something attractive about it, because a lot of things don’t work but in the end they work out, because they’re simply improvised. That’s Belgium. I can imagine that Milo would still find it funny. For now!
There is nothing you love and hate as much as your own home. I know it, I can get incredibly upset about it and laugh about it. It was a conscious choice for me to come back to this circus of dysfunctionality. Because I missed it somehow, the lightness, the levity. In the end, you work right through two nights and you get it done anyway. That would be impossible in Germany.
In this sense you could make that one of your criteria in a programme for an artists’ theatre of the 21st century: creative dysfunctionality keeps things lively.
In fact you have to be able to free yourself from the old structures, or to put it another way: old ballast. It was 27 years ago that our independent troupe took over the National Theater in Antwerp with “Ten Oorlog”, we completely shook up the old structure by transforming the vertical structure into a horizontal structure with fewer people. No more separate departments. With stage technicians who had multiple functions. This system fundamentally changed the Flemish scene. The pathways are shorter, the communication is more direct. And yes, I believe this artists’ theatre must be an adaptable, mobile apparatus that can adjust to the conditions of the moment. Which allows a certain Belgian anarchy, is capable of improvisation – that’s what you need.