ARNE SIERENS: Belgium's Abstractionist of the Rough *
David Willinger examines the pioneering work of Arne Sierens in the Flemish Theatre * Plays international, vol 25 * 2009-2010.
Arne Sierens is a prominent member of the present generation of buccaneering and pioneering Flemish theatre directors who have breathed pulsating new life into the Flemish theatre by joining striking abstract theatre images with intense and extrovertedly emotional acting. A playwright and director by turns, whose career began in the early 80s, and over which time Sierens has created twenty-eight shows; in many cases he has shared one or both capacities with others (ie, Luk Perceval, Johan Dehollander, Alize Zandwijck), in his latest work he does both entirely himself. While in the past he has tried to work with extant groups and has been solicited to direct 'normal' plays within a 'normal' rehearsal period, he ultimately has determined to forge his own way of working within the framework of Compagnie Cecilia, that at any given time performs two plays on tour throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, while he prepares two more simultaneously. The shows range in scale and type. Some, like Bernadetje (1996), are large-cast theatrical displays with butt-ends of dramatic actions interspersed; others, such as Meiskes en Jongens (Boys and Girls, 2005), Trouwfeesten en processen (Wedding Parties and Court Cases, 2007), Mijn Blackie (My Blackie, 1998), and Martino (2003), combine large casts with dense webs of plots and sub-plots; others such as Mouchette (1990), De Drumleraar (Drummers, 1994), De Soldaat-Facteur en Rachel (The Soldier-Postman and Rachel, 1986), and Altijd Prijs (Always a Winner, 2008) are intimate one-on-one confrontations; and still others such as Dozen (Boxes, 1993) and Napels (Naples, 1997) are a series of loosely related monologues and scenes around a theme.
Beginning with only the vaguest of ideas of where to begin – sometimes only a working title – Sierens loads the actors down with research – images, stories off of a TV program about criminal activities, Italian and Japanese movies, and so on – to spark their imaginations. He asks them to prepare monologues based on their own lives and those of characters they imagine; he brings in huge amounts of music – classical, pop, world – and plays it during their presentations. All this is interlaced with a strong Grotowski and Butoh-based series of physical and vocal exercises. Once Sierens takes a fancy to a character an actor creates, he embeds it in the developing script. After several months of this free work, which includes discarding huge amounts of false starts, he is ready to write a script. Once he does, the group reassembles to prepare the production.
The workshops are attended by Guido Vrolix, Sierens's current set designer who tries out scenic ideas even as the text is evolving, so that ultimately the environment will have grown organically at the same time as Sierens is writing the play and the actors developing their characters, in sharp contrast with the usual order of creation. The musical selections are also selected early, not in the final stages as is customary, and form part of the bedrock of the ultimate production.
Three of Sierens's plays – Bernadetje, Allemaal Indiaan (Indians All, 1999), and Moeder en kind (Mother and Child, 1995) – were developed with the choreographer Alain Platel. In these large-cast, groundbreaking pieces Sierens and Platel leaned heavily on local children and teenagers when casting, and created a synergy of the community refracting back to itself; they were cutting edge in style, the obverse of the clunkiness we generally associate with community theatre. While resident playwright with the Blauwe Maandaag Compagnie (where he did Boste (1992), Boxes, Drummers, and Juffrouw Tania (Miss Tania, 1994)), he used their stable of actors and when at the Nieuwpoortteater working with Johan Dehollander (where he did Naples and De broers Geboers (The Brothers Flubbers, 1998)), he cast each show ad hoc. He now prefers to build them around an ensemble of actors, Titus DeVooght, Marijke Pinoy, Johan Heldenbergh, and Robrecht Vanden Thoren, with whom he has time-tested relationships. They share common understandings about his process and sign on for a rigorous and extensive commitment. The company is versatile in character range, gifted in comedy, and unrestrained in plumbing emotional depths. Sierens's particularity lies in his predilection for an extremely circumscribed and local socio-economic milieu—the Flemish lumpen proletariat in and around the Flemish city of Ghent – with its linguistic provincialism and localisms, its semi-literacy, brutal and fluid family arrangements, harsh mercantilist culture, and vulgar humor laced with sexual innuendo and ethnic put-down; he lifts all this 'real life' and sets it down in an abstract ambience, at the crossroads 'where the extremes of hyper-realism and hyper-formalism meet'.
The Domestic Stew of the Lumpen Proletariat
The characters who inhabit these worlds are bakers, butchers, car mechanics, waiters, hairdressers, laundresses, cooks, and many unemployed. Original nuclear families that have held steadfast are few and far between. Not a few Sierens characters drop out of the employment market and into small- time criminality – drugs, embezzlement, domestic violence; when they return after a spell in prison, no one blinks an eye. The number of fathers forbidden from seeing their children or separated from wives due to drink, drugs, and wife-beating are more the rule than the exception.
The Incompetent Patriarch
The Sierens high patriarch is an absence – in general separated or exiled from his brood. In Martino, Patricia's and Alex's father, patron of the Martino, a neighborhood restaurant, has peremptorily betaken himself to Spain for a vacation, but the vacation keeps getting extended and no one knows when or if he'll ever be back. The business is currently quite competently run by Patricia, the sister of the family. Her racist brother Alex (a prototypical Sierens anti-hero) turns up, determined to install his girlfriend (who has no experience in restaurant management) to run the place by herself. Then he'll put his sister and parents, who made the restaurant a success and who now live upstairs, out on the street. And his own role in this plan? Live a life of leisure off the profits! His way of taking managerial charge is, when a customer complains about the soup being too cold, to dump it on his shirt. A complication arises as his 6 year-old daughter is expected for a visit, and his girlfriend doesn't know he has a daughter. Who can he park her with? His sister Patricia of course – the very one he's decided to throw out! The patent amorality, anti-sentimentality, and illogic of his ruses typify the values which reign supreme in the sordid Sierens dramatic universe, and which are refracted throughout the multiplicity of homes and workplaces that are the Petrie dishes of relationships.
In The Brothers Flubbers father Noel had walked out on his family long ago – separated from his wife due to drink and perhaps because he'd hit her, after which he never bothered to see his sons – and is now living with another woman. Whenever his son Ivan discovers him sitting in the kitchen, a wraith-like, apologetic presence, he looses a string of invective invoking Noel's many paternal failures throughout their childhood, a charge to which Noel's only rebuttal is 'You have all the answers,' a tacit admission of defeat.
Noel's elder son Marnix, recently released from jail, is also estranged from his wife who won't even let him wear his glasses when he sees his son; glasses make the kid cry, she says. So, he laments, he can never see his son ... literally! Nor, he pleads, can he get to the hospital to visit his mother, since he's being tried out with a security company that expects him to rush out on a moment's notice anytime in the twenty-four hour period (This motif of refusal to visit a mother in the hospital is found elsewhere in the Sierens canon in Niet alle Marokkanen zijn dieven (Not All Moroccans Are Thieves, 2000) with the character Fadilah).
Washed up on every front, Marnix is intent on pulling himself up by the bootstraps, and getting his family back on track, which principally entails 'fixing' his younger brother Ivan's life. The latter, whom to his everlasting disgrace Marnix discovers cavorting in women's clothes, has obviously gone over to the other side; furthermore, he discovers Ivan's stopped attending school, instead doing a series of art photo portraits of himself in drag, an unremunerative and disgraceful pastime by Marnix's lights. His bullying escalates to the point that Ivan rips off his clothes, swearing to go naked from here on in. Having resolved the family issue in that fashion, Marnix launches himself on a political career with the Vlaams Blok (Flemish neo-Nazis), but his bid for glory fizzles when in a rowdy meeting he drunkenly clambers onto a table for his speech-making debut, only to be knocked off it by a swinging chandelier.
Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand (Mary Eternal Consolation, 2004) contains yet another incompetent patriarch who gets held up for derision – Gabriel – who was ejected from his family due to his womanizing. His kids are now going to a therapist in consequence; his daughter wets her bed. He'd never been there when his wife needed him; he has a thriving business in 'hostesses,' probably prostitutes he patronized himself; now she has the Saab, the house, and the kids, and he is content to live in an isolated single closet-like room, with side-trips to the Bahamas.
But not all of Sierens's families' dysfunctionalities can be laid at the doorstep of the father. Mimi in the same play is a single mother who has proven incompetent at raising her daughter Monica. Her anorexic daughter's been taken away due to the filthy domestic environment, encumbered by adopted chickens pecking in the living room. She even failed at maintaining her parrot, who fell sick from the chicken poop and the pizza she fed it, and has come to abandon the bird with Michel. She's a washout working as a clown working in hospices, where she fails to get patients to laugh within the prescribed 30-second timeframe.
In the past Gabriel and Mimi had constituted a circus that played in Spain and Romania. She did stunts and rode on a donkey in all kinds of weather, no matter how sick it made her. This was a non-conformist, twisted family unit, one that resonates perversely with the New Testament Gospels.
In the recent Wedding Parties, the families it contains are both irregular. The lead female, Yolanda is an aging prostitute with a little boy she brings up in the most off-handed way possible. There have been a variety of men throughout his upbringing, but she's decided to marry an African client and go straight. In the meanwhile her steady customers provide a makeshift family or entourage, and her pimp may be her lover, although he by turns acts like an older brother and baby-sitter to the little boy. A second family in the play contains a young protégée and neighbor of Yolanda's, Estelle, who, it turns out, is the long-lost daughter of Max, one of Yolanda's long-term clients. Once he recognizes her – at first mistaking her for her mother – he does his utmost to avoid her and slip out of the revivedentanglement, not knowing any better how to integrate her into his life than in the past when he'd been a morphine addict, thrown out by Estelle's mother. There was a case when, trying to fulfill his fatherly duties, he quite forgot he'd brought Estelle to a party and left her under a table overnight, since which time he hasn't seen her. Max and Estelle ultimately enjoy a happy ending of reconciliation, the perfect harmony of which is tarnished by Max's observation that she looks so much like her mother he'll have a hard time keeping his hands off her. That bitter twist is pure Sierens.
Shrewish Mothers and Wives
The complementary opposite number to the incompetent husband is the estranged wife, left to manage the family on her own. In Indians All Tosca is one such figure, bravely shouldering the burden of raising four children with the revenues from the laundromat. A hearty, foul-mouthed woman, she has burned all pictures of her husband, torn up every letter he has ever sent to his kids, and turns a deaf ear to the messengers who arrive with requests that he wants to see them; she is more invested in anathemizing him. She's forever screaming at her brood whom, it is quite true, fly off in all directions at once and get into all manner of mischief. Her daughter Cricri takes all her clothes off and hangs off the roof. When her older daughter Elleke (known by the little boys as 'the neighborhood sperm bank') complains that there are no vegetables in the refrigerator, only salami, Tosca tells her it's too much trouble buying lettuce and apples which only go bad; her daughter, she decides, is crazy.
Her son Arno, who sports an Indian headdress (hence the play's title), is retarded, and it is he who precipitates the climax when he defecates on the floor just as they're sitting down to dinner. When she goes to clean it up, telling her other son Steve to stick him in the shower, Arno smears it all over the wall and lands a punch in his mother's face. Steve chooses this moment to lambast Tosca's mothering, she orders him out of her house, and he complies; they take their tousle out onto the street, she shrieking that he's going to hurt her, that he's a murderer, a bastard, etc., etc. The whole little turbulent community lives its life as much on the street as inside. Here, as in all the plays, Sierens puts his characters on display, warts and all – mostly warts. They are a lovable lot, lacking the cover of bourgeois social masks, and letting their cupidity and lecherousness hang out unapologetically. Also, they do everything with gusto, from smacking each other around, to cursing each other out in colorful dialect expressions, to messing their own and others' lives up with cheerful abandon. They careen through their lives taking no prisoners, making this marginal universe both vivacious and tonic.
And as for romantic liaisons... In My Blackie Matthieu who's been gone for five years is greeted by his old pal Daniel. They compare notes. When Matthieu had lived in the neighborhood Marie had been his girlfriend for two years, and then she'd been with Daniel for four months. Marie broke up with both of them (she tells Matthieu she'd stopped calling because she lost his phone number). Daniel now has a wife and kid and Matthieu a live-in girlfriend, Katia. Daniel gets him to describe Katia and then very much wants Matthieu to bring her to meet them all, not to get closer to his old friend, but in a feeble ploy to grab hold of his old buddy's girlfriend: she sounds more like his type – as opposed to his wife, who has put on weight. Loyalty in any direction is an empty word. But when he finds out Katia's a student and intellectual, he immediately loses all interest.
Their stunning lack of emotional attachment and sentimentality finds its most pertinent target in their attitudes toward the mangy Blackie, who is tied up there from beginning to end. At curtain's rise, he appears to belong to no one, but then a certain local, Nico, claims him. Matthieu (his former owner who'd shared him with Marie) observes that he's sick and tells Nico to take him to the vet. Nico rejoins that it's not worth it since he's 'beyond treatment.' Better 'give him a shot.' Later Marie tells Matthieu that she'd gotten rid of Blackie since he'd been jealous of her baby, and had fleas and worms. The neglected dog embodies the sluggish, arbitrary way they deal with each other and destiny, drifting into fait accomplis, which substitute for firm decisions.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side of the Tracks...
The play just referred to above, Boys and Girls, is one of Sierens's most successful texts and, surprisingly and exceptionally, it is set in a wealthy milieu. Written and directed with Alize Zandwijk, it is unique in his canon. We find ourselves on the estate of Philip, a textile magnate, whose wealth derives from his wife Tilly's fortune. It becomes immediately apparent that Philip's relationships with his sons are sour and out of control, impregnated with mutual contempt, and that his love for his wife has grown quite attenuated. While his sons Anthony and Gregory cram for exams along with a school chum, Bertrand, reactionary son of a car mechanic, two girls, Lieske and her buddy Tamara, turn up and lure them into the pool for a swim.
It quickly becomes apparent that it is no coincidence that Tamara is there: she is having a hot and heavy affair with Philip, the pater familias. To complete the constellation of guests, the Colonel, school buddy of Philip, who was his rival for Tilly in the old days, has just come back from a thankless assignment in Bosnia. The young clique makes the most of the estate's amusements – swimming and gorging, managing all kinds of assignations, as Philip and Tamara undergo a series of confrontations, both threads advancing in a series of short contrapuntal scenes, reminiscent of Chekhov or Gorky.
The play develops through a series of comic twists that are ever more absurd. Ultimately the young characters manage to stay overnight and have an orgy in the tent. Tamara, who has responded to Philips ardent professions of love with enigmatic silence, spends most of the play making futile attempts at escaping from the estate (and presumably from the relationship with Philip), only to be thwarted each time in some ingenious way. Finally taking a stand, she handcuffs herself to Philip, thus threatening to blow their cover sky high. As the curtain falls and she knows he's hers hook, line, and sinker, she reverses herself one last time and tells him it's over. Her discomfort with intimacy is shared virtually universally among the entire constellation of Sierens characters, rich or poor.
Sierens's aesthetic is dominated by Peter Brooks's concept of The Empty Space. Wedding Parties is set in a spare circus ring with a shimmering curtain upstage, the perfect set-up for spectacular entrances and exits, augmented by a fork-lift that crashes through in really climactic moments. The characters are dressed with a suggestion of the clown about them, each acting with their own asymmetricality, twisted and limping; and with radically transformed facial masks, in the Meyerhold tradition via Grotowski, the actors are unrecognizable from one show to the next.
Broeders van liefde (Brothers of Charity, 2007) has the entire stage space covered in shattered glass. This simple, but powerful visual metaphor is transformative under the lights, suggesting now a snowy winter landscape now a parched sandy desert, depending on the color of the lighting and the angle from which it hits. For Marijke Pinoy, who gallivants barefoot over this perilous surface, each performance is a Sufi meditative feat of prowess.
In Always a Winner the space is, yet again, deceptively simple, as apart from the raised platform, there is only a metal bar hanging over the space. Yet the stage that at first sight seems stable is in fact centrifugally powered, and shudders at unpredictable intervals, accompanied by a harsh sinking sound, throwing the actors off balance.
The set for My Blackie couldn't have been simpler: a wall running the width of the stage to which the dog, Blackie was tied up. This unpromising, even negative, arrangement turns out to be a cornucopia of potential. Sierens wrests maximum mileage and variations out of this simple boundary by having characters climb over the wall, leap from it like so many competitive cannonballs, careen around in ever-exchanging dyads and triads, and at the climax of the anarchic melee, stand on top of it triumphantly waving a giant banner. A striptease is glimpsed 'accidentally' as the character Daniel passes by the gap between the wall and the edge of the stage, lending a voyeuristic tone. Blackie the dog, tied to the wall throughout, who gets a bit of his own back when he devours the birthday cake, is otherwise the perpetual witness and mute commentator to the human parade, whose victim he is. The discarded parrot in Mary Eternal is another mute animal commentator, metaphor, set piece, and integral member of the community.
Sierens has no problem, however, violating the Empty Space when it suits his subject. In Indians All Sierens crammed the stage, representing two neighboring two-story houses, with scenery and furniture. The life inside the houses and on their roofs lends itself to dense simultaneity of action, as the families who coexist in this narrow, crammed environment endlessly configure and reconfigure. The height of the houses gives ample opportunity also for spectacular suicide attempts, death- defying leaps, and dumping of an alienated partner's stuff – chairs, tv antennas, etc. – out the window. Just as the houses have no facades so we can see everything that goes on, so the characters have no secrets from each other, spewing forth their emotional guts and sparing each other nothing... confidences, verbal abuse, sexual appeals, playing and fighting in alternation or simultaneously.
Arne Sierens shows defy categorization. Some are more text- driven but others, such as Bernadetje that takes place in a bumper car rink, have the merest skeletal pretext for dramatic action, dominated rather by competitions and compositions with the bumper cars. But practically all shows are interlarded with what I'm going to call 'interludes'. Here physical acts of prowess, dance routines, singing numbers that riff off the play's situation, displays of combat, pantomimes that have only tenuous connection with dramatic logic, chaotic running amok, and so on interrupt or run simultaneous to the dramatic situation. Sometimes they are justified by circumstances of the text and just as often are arbitrarily inserted to provide diversion, to refocus attention on a given histrionic skill in and of itself, to reinforce the theatreness of the event, or simply to provide a breather. As a 'play' structure transforms to music- hall format, the actors bask in the enjoyment of showing off for the public, and the public is drawn in and recast as aficionados and specialist judges of the craft on display. It is as though Sierens has taken the rough and ready 'real life' street hubbub from his proletarian milieu of the lower depths of suburban Ghent and dressed it up in the trappings of a circus. Often the interludes give the show a layering and depth that the naked text would otherwise lack.
Activities where virtuosity provides the principal interest, such as tap-dancing or martial arts, recur from show to show, as for instance in Bernadetje, where Kelly performs a little tap-dance, or Wedding Parties, when the whole cast taps. Or else overflowing emotions find expression through a Spanish standard, as when Lupe in Brothers of Charity sings 'Malagueña' to approximate the extremity of her love for Isabel. We are often treated to extant recordings, against which the characters move or speak, and these range from the Jackson Five to Berlioz. The ins and outs of Titus Devooght and Robrecht Vanden Thoren's ever-morphing relationship in Always a Winner gain graphic life when the actors amply exploit a virtually invisible hanging bar, dangling from it through whole scenes like desultory chimps or doing tender and aggressive pas de deux in the air. Also, Vanden Thoren at one point grabs a huge soft bag containing confetti, and playfully throws it at Devooght. The subsequent choreographed pillow fight degenerates when the bag is punctured and confetti magically engulfs the entire stage.
In Not All Moroccans Are Thieves, interludes are used to heighten the absurdity of the situation, as when some step up to dance on the billiard table while others, displaced, play billiards on the floor. Sierens, who refuses normal play construction, fashions crescendos not with reversals and dramatic intensification, but through a segment of physical and theatrical turns, as follows:
Arab dances. Whirling dervishes.
Roland dresses up as an Arab with a fez.
Ramon sings like a muezzin.
Bambi and Cynthia dance with veils.
Jamaal does a break dance version of Arab dancing –
Indians All, with its two two-story houses, alley, and laundromat starts off with the following interlude that establishes the spatial complexity of this social honeycomb: Mireille lies with her head on a sheep fleece.
Cricri is on the roof cleaning up. Yuri plays at secret agent.
Steve is flying about on the other roof. Tosca comes out of the shower.
Elleke is doing her hair.
Arno sits on the toilet.
Fireman Franky is in the alley reading a paper.
Cricri takes a bottle of milk to the Laundromat.
Yuri jumps from the second floor into Franky's arms.
Or from My Blackie:
Matthieu stalks off.
Mieke drops down from the top of the wall yelling.
Jean-Marie dives off also.
He dances with Blackie.
Nico climbs up and drops down too.
Daniel climbs up and dives down.
Jean-Marie and Nico walk across the top of the wall.
They put on a show with flour and toilet paper.
Guitar played by Jos.
Daniel and Marie do a slow dance.
Patrick stands on the wall and waves a big flag.
Jean-Marie pretends to bury Nico in the flour and toilet paper.
With each successive interlude, boosted by greater and greater alcohol intake, the show ultimately becomes a ballet of betrayal, exploding hostility, and unalloyed joy – a social Darwinian jungle landscape of domination and submission.
The Presence of the Other
The environment Sierens favors – de- and reconstructed from the working class neighborhood he grew up in, in Ghent called Brugse Poort – is so self-reenforcingly solipsistic, cordoned off by its values, economic constraints, and its impenetrable local variant of East Flemish dialect, that anyone from pretty much anywhere else is treated as The Other. Even one of their own, such as Matthias in My Blackie, once he has been absent for five years, gone to university to study engineering, is The Other and, in ever widening swathes -- French-speaking Belgians, Eastern Europeans, North Africans, and Sub-Saharan Africans - are to members of the enclave, increasingly alien. And yet a plethora of Others has willy-nilly infiltrated into their supposedly hermetic world, infecting or enriching it, depending on one's viewpoint. Some, like the neo-Nazi Marnix in Brothers Flubbers frequents, would banish them all; but they've become an integral part of the East Flemish landscape – mocked, sidelined, tacitly folded in, but undeniably there – hence woven into Sierens's landscape.
The generalized presence of the Other as incarnated by the immigrant is the subject of Brothers of Charity (a co-production with Chokri Ben Chikha) whose characters struggle with their sense of dislocation, trying to reconcile their North African culture in the European post-colonial context. In fact, they regard the incongruous position in which they find themselves with perfect ambivalence; and while some Belgians make them a part their social circle, just as many shut them out and stigmatize them. Not All Moroccans are thieves is set in a singularly unsuccessful boxing club whose denizens are almost exclusively Moroccan of both sexes. The women talk about the pressures on them to wear a veil on the one hand, to 'integrate' on the other. They stick with boxing and dance to Jennifer Lopez music. They have alighted in this uneasy and curious world of the boxing club, a space that is a cross between a halfway house and a safe house where, at least, they may work out their aggressions through sport.
In most of his other plays, Sierens casually inserts foreigners who literally speak a different language from everyone else in the cast of characters. They may be offstage presences; have peripheral roles of arbiters, irritants, or tag-alongs; or they may be principals. At the end of Indians All, Kosovo, expatriate from the former Yugoslavia struggling to learn Flemish, after all the denizens have fought it out with each other in a free-for-all of hostility and rancor, broadcasts a touching homage with grateful tears to her Flemish neighbors over a mic, to the effect that she wants to thank the whole community for welcoming her here, and all of Flanders, and the king and queen as well. In response to this heartfelt tribute to their liberality, Steve hangs out a sign saying 'Kosovo go home'.
Into a context which is ostensibly rigid and macho Sierens frequently insinuates sexual variations that reveal it to be more supple than expected. In Brothers of Charity, set in the Algerian sub-culture of Flanders, Chokri is reminded of the extended erotic liaison he had with his elder brother. Even as he denies it and rails against it, the gay Flemish surveillance guard who has a heavy crush on Chokri reads aloud an incriminating passage from the very book Chokri wrote. This challenge to the usual concept of Moslem manhood is quite daring. Lupe, in the same play, is head over heels in love with Estelle, which everyone accepts without negative comment. The Brothers Flubbers opens with the younger brother, Ivan, dancing alone in drag. Though he denies he's gay, the play climaxes with him making out with the Russian Alexei in a car, where they are menaced with lynching by a party of neo-Nazis, associates of Ivan's brother, Marnix. This whole incident is related by their grandmother, Meme, an old Communist sympathizer, who certainly sympathizes with them. Throughout Sierens's oeuvre, macho characters experiment with crossing sexual lines in various ways. Among the plethora of possible ways the two guys in Always a Winner entertain to overcome their mutual isolation and connect with each other, one of them is sexual; still, it isn't hammered in, just tossed out as just another option for human relations.
In a reading of Sierens's texts one is very often struck by how the distinctly East-Flemish situations, dialogue, and tone, despite the iconoclastic structural experiments, are reminiscent of those of many American modern playwrights, and on occasion British, Russian, and French – David Mamet, Eric Bogosian, Michael Weller, Edward Albee, Bernard Koltès, David Story, Maxim Gorky are all flavors that float up. But even so, Sierens is an original.
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PLAYS BY ARNE SIERENS * Ons Erfdeel * February 2009 * Fred Six *
Uitgeverij Vrijdag has published the trilogy Arne Sierens wrote for his Compagnie Cecilia: Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand, Trouwfeesten en processen and Altijd prijs. Sierens' plays do not take shape at the desk. They develop on the shop-floor in the course of exhaustive improvisation, where the actors are fuelled and inspired by film, literature and music. In this way each play arises out of a series of contacts that is entirely its own. The writer-director distils a final script from material gathered from anywhere and everywhere. This sort of creative process makes it hard to undo the connection between the script and the performance. However, Sierens' plays are so powerful in themselves that their publication is not only useful, it also gives us an insight into his methods. Reading the plays naturally focuses above all on their literary qualities.
The plays concerned here do not have a proper plot, and there is no action to drive them forward. In this way Sierens avoids any form of anecdotalism. All three plays involve the process of seeking happiness. Each character is involved in their own story and it is the confrontation between these stories that is examined in a series of encounters. In fact, what we see when the characters come together is a sort of emanation of the social and emotional core of their present situation. In terms of structure, Sierens does not refer to acts, but to 'movements' or 'encounters'. In this sense it is a form of analytical drama. But this does not by any means signify that there is no life in it. It is just more in the language than in the action.
The dialogues are not constructed on the basis of any psychological discourse or borne by any solidly moulded characters in the Strindberg style, to name only one sculptor of the soul. In most cases it is the characters themselves who have caused the mess they are in, but you do not detect the great 'Victim' or 'Culprit' in this tangle of misery and sadness. It is much more a question of the general powerlessness of the human condition, made concrete in little, floundering lower- class figures, with language to match.
Solid reasoning is replaced by snappy spoken reflexes, explosive dialogues that emit signals of what is bubbling and churning inside. And in between come segments of narration that expose the roots. The language is powerful, primal, sometimes trivial, and extremely evocative. Short sentences and fitful syntax that barely completes the flow of thought. In this indisputably lower-class idiom, with its huge expressiveness, lurks not only poetry and humour, but also a dose of the philosophy of common sense mixed with some absurd logic. The figures speak the dialect of their soul. And it is literally through their language that they draw us into their very nature. Never directly, and without ever fully revealing themselves, because that is something they are incapable of.
They are vulnerable figures, always have a ready answer, like to mock themselves and get themselves into some crazy situations. In conversations they skip from one subject to another, because it is not in their nature to be able to stick to one thing for long, because a topic suddenly gets stuck in their throat and has to be ejected, or simply to get away from the subject. This fickleness is physically tinged too, and is linked to a sort of restlessness and insecurity. They lack solid ground under their feet and a fixed line to follow, and seem to be constantly in search of a safe biotope.
In their relationships (man-woman, parent-child, friends) everything is topsy-turvy. Communication is not their forte. But they keep on looking for survival strategies: in a smartened-up self-image, new contacts, fixed rituals, their imagination, their dreams and so on. They cling onto illusions quite casually, but let them go equally casually when reality intrudes. They have both the need and the inability to rely on each other or to take care of one another. In fact each of these plays ends with one of these moments of 'reconciliation'. This is moving, but what you see beneath it is often painfully grotesque.
The humour lies deeper than the witticisms that are mischievously concealed in the spoken language. It often takes the form of grotesque irony, which displays both a disarming naivety and harrowing tragedy. We are happy to believe Michel (Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand) when he says that he loves his mother. She does so much for him. When he gets home late at night, she has always left a meal ready for him, because she is often out herself. But what do we find? His plate is at the neighbours', because they have a microwave. And so he sits at the neighbours' kitchen table every night, chewing away while their know-it-all son sits there doing his homework. Sierens is constantly playing on this comical disillusionment. In the same play, Mimi takes courses on terminal care and being a hospital clown. She says it's her calling, a passion. But coming from a woman who's completely disoriented and is herself in need of psychological and social assistance, this sounds painfully ridiculous.
The stories have such great visual power that if you close your eyes you will find yourself watching scenes from silent films, in all their rudimentary glory. Just put it to the test. Sacha (Weddings and court cases) is shopping in the DIY superstore accompanied by a nice young lady with whom he is only a very little bit in love. All at once he spots his wife. Aware of her distrustful nature, his unfortunate reflex is to duck down between the shelves, but... too late. He has been 'discovered', he 'has a girlfriend'. His punishment is a week in the garden shed. In the midst of the action of these dialogues, these stories recall key moments from the past or introduce new events for the characters to pick up and make use of.
Sierens in fact sticks to what he was aiming for at the very start of his career: an evocation of the naked human trying to keep his feet in a pitiless world. He does this in a language that is increasingly effective and which entirely shatters the illusion of realism. In the late eighties he was mainly involved in epic theatrical styles. After his collaboration with the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie (1992-1994), where he experimented with collage and other forms, and his joint theatre projects with the choreographer Alain Platel (1994-1999), in which dance and action were also very important elements, in this trilogy Sierens has found a new balance in the dynamic interaction between the dialogue and the narrative.
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