“I put an apple before me on the table.
Then I put myself in that apple.
THE BLUE HOUR (2004)
It is quiet. It is dark. A city at night. Unreal, without a noise. The squares without people, the avenues long and motionless. The distant sound of a lorry bouncing over the cobblestones, a bell tower striking five, a cat on heat. Street lights on poles anchored in the pavement. The silhouette of a bridge so busy during the day now looks like a huge animal in the dark. The facade of a private house is like a grinning face. The market place, where people will soon be passing and greeting each other again, running to the other side or sitting down in an outdoor cafe, now has an ominous glow. The streets are deserted. The trees are silent. Behind the facades of the houses, people are asleep. What is to come is still far away. After a walk through the sleeping city in the night, the audience reaches a darker part. In the middle of the street children and adults take their seats on wooden stools that they have picked up along the way. The woman who leads them through the deserted streets offers them blue canvas blankets and pours in tea. People whisper low, until a man with a lamp on his head runs into the street and turns on the street lights one by one. The audience listens to the silence and looks round. The houses, the trees, the cars, all is quiet. It is a bright night. Out of the dark a newspaper boy comes pedalling on a silent motorcycle. He goes from letterbox to letterbox, on and off the pavement, crosses the street diagonally. Until he reaches back to take a newspaper from his newspaper bag and notices the audience. He checks himself, looks, turns away and takes to his heels. Far away the sound of his motorcycles fades out, for the silence to return. A cat crouches nearby and runs off in a garden when at the end of the street a company crosses the street: musicians with red jackets and golden buttons and epaulettes. They follow the drum major turn right round the corner. But the curious drum majorette runs to the audience, to find herself startled by a woman in a house coat who just happens to walk to her letterbox to get the morning paper. For a while they stare each other in the eye, in between probability and imagination. Slowly the morning rituals in the Antwerp street are disordered.
A cold flow of air takes away yesterday’s day. A black-blue glow marks the turn. It is slowly getting light, the sky colours blue, dark contours are filled in with details. The brass band has disappeared in the night, and the day is starting off. In its first try-out the performance is on wings. A wren flies through the fourth wall, lands on a ridge-piece, makes the first noise and breaks open the day. The early bird provides the course of events with a turning point and changes the perspective. The theatrical situation is caused by what happens in the moment, anticipated and unanticipated. The scenes connect like the cogs of a mechanism. In letting go of the original story the intentions become clear, oddly enough lending the images credibility. Van den Berg cuts down the characters and transforms the actors into acting figures. The montage is given a natural absurdity. Explanation is taken out, speed is taken in. Immediately the chosen setting gives shape to the subject.
The blue hour takes place right before sunrise, out in the street, in a residential neighbourhood. The concept is as solid as a rock. While the night makes way for the day, the performance so to speak moves like a toppled reality into the street. A toppling that shows how wondrous reality is. The performance offers a frame for watching. A frame for seeing everyday things and rituals again, with new eyes. To observe them and face them. Without prejudice. As it is, life, here and now. The possibility and the impossibility. Freedom and responsibility. The frame is made out of fragile images. They are made during rehearsals (which actually is not an appropriate word as it seems to suggest the practicing of a fixed pattern and the approach of an invented story or filled-in statement). In the run-up to the performance the actors are give space to react on the material that they are given by coming up with actions within the frame construed by Lotte van den Berg. In this way small events occur, reminiscent of something more, tender moments that show an attitude. Van den Berg distils the most real details by filtering them and by stripping them of any anecdote.
Her observations are flawless. In no time she sees the moments when it happens. Intuitively and experienced she makes professional choices. By watching the functioning of the spotlighted part of an action, she finds the imagery to proportion the parts within the whole. She vigorously points at a glance, an unconscious movement of a hand, an undecided sitting down, a half-open mouth. Very good, she comments, and now that same piece with some quiet around it, don’t pretend to walk, but walk. She has to feel that what the actors show is credible, how they are present, the way they stand in the image. The body cannot lie. Sometimes she has an actor do nothing in a very particular way. As a subtle manifestation of the small body with a big thought.
The blue hour was performed at the end of the summer of 2003 and also in 2005 as a school performance. One of the breakfast mothers had seen the show no less than three times. At first she thought it a bit of a fuss to have her family get up before 5 AM. But while she is making the sandwiches in class, she talks about the conversations that her children had after having attended The blue hour. Whether the lady next door was acting or real, and whether the man that walked his dog was part of it and whether the bird with the incredible timing was directed too, and the lady next door who put a garden chair on the pavement in front of her house, watching the show with them. Everybody construes his own story and seizes upon The blue hour to consider the performance as a construed reality and to think of his own existence as a part of the wondrous orchestration. “Mum”, a little boy asks, “who made the performance? And who made the world?”
Wasteland takes place in the open, on a deserted site, an indefinable space, where the wind has free play and the sand reed grows. An unruly piece of land. Coarse sandy ground, deep ditches, worn down pits. When dusk is falling, a creature rummages about in the distance. Strenuously the man is dragging his body. Until he is at the end of his powers and collapses, without getting up. A second man comes running out of thin air. Aimlessly, as if he has completely lost all sense. A third man, a woman, another woman from another direction. At the mercy of the wasteland. Defenceless. They stumble upon the man who has collapsed and tug at his body. One leaves with his jacket, the others fight for his boots. The actions have no sense, the cruelties are without cause or effect. The images follow each other in an endless pace, along the long lines in the landscape, agonizingly long lines that lead nowhere. Wasteland is a bare story, without words, without a plot, made of plain images and fragile, unexpectedly cruel moments. A story stripped to the bone, rendered in its extreme consistency, very precisely situated in the deserted plain, scrupulously timed within the slow course of the performance. Actions are performed as if in a trance. The cruelties that people inflict upon each other reveal a state of radically restricted awareness. They seem to be overwhelmed by a consuming indifference that they cannot resist. The audience is thrown back to the matter of their own responsibility in their relation to the world round them. The performance hardly leaves any space for a rational escape bid. It rather shamelessly has its audience experience how tarnishing man’s despair can be when he has lost all hope. How to make theatre that matters? Starting from non-sublimated intuitive knowledge? By facing your own fear and avoiding conditioned action? By trying, no matter how hesitatingly, to capture a language of images for the things we consider the most important, but about which we seldom dare to talk? By showing small moments, a man helping a woman in her shoes, a girl watching over a man who is sleeping on the street, a boy dragging his left foot, moments behind which a way of observing or a mentality lurks? By speculating, fumbling via abstracted imagery, on cultural shifts that seem to manifest themselves but that haven’t been given words yet? By pointing the attention on the circumstances in a concrete here and now, not sung away from daily life, but right in the middle of it instead?
BEGIJNENSTRAAT 42 (2004)
During two summer months van den Berg works in the Antwerp house of detention, in collaboration with nine inmates, four warders, three Toneelhuis actors and seven backstage people, for the creation the performance Begijnenstraat 42. The house of detention has six hundred inmates waiting for their penalty, in between release on parole and life sentence. The waiting can take months or even years. During the creation of the performance the prison house is under a lot of pressure: the house of detention is overpopulated and prison staff is planning to go on strike. Begijnenstraat 42 is created in a situation beyond anybody’s control. The continuity of the project is threatened on many fronts at the same time. Three inmates suddenly have to quit – one is transferred, another one wants to fully concentrate on his lawsuit, the third one is released from prison. The group meets every afternoon in the yard in a barred space with a stage. Personal stories, everyday experiences, great emotions are captured in silent actions and subtle gestures. A process of hesitating confidence. And humanity. The quiet straightening of each other’s shirts. Holding a hand. Tuning eye contact. Moving bodies in a tight cadence. These are quiet images, executed with dedication and a vigour that at any time could switch into cruel release.
The audience is gathering in front of the gate of the house of detention. Bags, coats, telephones are numbered and disappear in big bags. They enter in turn, four by four. Everybody’s identity card is scanned behind a desk with armoured glass. Via a labyrinth of heavily secured corridors and elevators the audience reaches the room where the group has been working for eight weeks. Doors are locked and silence settles. Six men enter, strutting past the front row, forming a line. Eye to eye with the audience. Nothing to hide behind. Ruthless concentration. Begijnenstraat 42 presents the vulnerability with which these tough men show themselves to the audience, and the force of each of them to continue to believe in themselves, even though they know that they are guilty and that they are given over to an unpredictable environment in which freedom is no obvious matter.
THE MONK AND THE GIRL (1999) During the second year of her training as a director at the Amsterdam Hogeschool voor de Kunsten maakt van den Berg creates The monk and the girl (1999), a sober solo performance situated in the Kosovo war. She plays a girl in the war. She explains that she doesn’t know how to deal with the war and what to believe in. She has a conversation with a monk, who is also played by her. She considers his worthy words and his faith in the good, investigates the possibility of having an open mind towards the big and small things of life, people, events round her. She prays. She plays with his dolls: they are the dolls of her father, the beautiful dolls that Jozef van de Berg used in his performances before he would completely dedicate himself to his faith. And she dances, spins round her axis, stretching her arms above her swirling skirt. She wonders how to have faith and how to live in the reality of existence. And through the conversation of the girl and the monk, she has a conversation with her father. About faith in the truth, about her attempt to approach the truth and to face her own powerlessness. About the capacity and incapacity to love life as it is. She asks herself her most urgent questions. She asks them in a concrete, simple, sincere way. Right through her fear and shame. Out of an inner necessity and the realisation that it is important to actually do it, without being able to know beforehand how this will affect the audience.
The audience is touched. By her presence, because she is standing here with all that she is, the urgency, the shaking. The passion, the trying, the uncertainty. The audience finds comfort in her searching attitude. The intimate existential questions that manifest a personal urge as well as a social commitment, is an incentive for introspection. The audience is touched by the way in which she alternates between gravity and relativity, towards her own vulnerable exposure and the relevance of theatre. The starting point for making The monk and the girl was the creation of a performance about what is really on her mind, doing what she really thinks is important. The fact that the performance appeals to the audience, makes her decide to keep on trying to make theatre that really matters.