The performance by Belgian director Luke Perceval was an event that raised high expectations from the audience, both because of the scale of the event (not all parts of the trilogy have been presented as part of one show so far) and the director’s recognition . The artist has been attracting the attention of foreign audiences for years and is also recognized in Poland. A performance by TR Warszawa and the National Stary Theater in Krakow 3 SISTERS, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s famous drama, aroused critical interest among critics. Maciej Stroiński referred to the performance in the following words: “Normally I don’t look with my head at the theater and explain to myself that it is delicious, but in the afternoon I was voted that Perceval was great. According to my colleagues, it should be watched until it sits down”. I found this sentence fitting for the Maltese event attended by viewers and commentators from all over the country. Watching All the sorrow of Belgium it was a necessity in the environment backstage, as said – “Perceval super”. Why so much trust in the Flemish director?
As I looked through the texts on the subject 3 SISTERS, my attention was drawn to a few sentences from the article by Marta Żelazowska from Nowa Siły Crityczna. When discussing one of the Czech heroines, Natasza, the reviewer says: “her [Nataszy – przyp. red.] existence is also filled with apathy and nonsense. This is demonstrated by sitting in front of the mirror like the others. The question arises whether the change in mentality of Western society is real? “Although we are talking about a different production, these words are also justified in All the sorrow of Belgium, in which the Flemish contemporary, put in front of the history mirror, turns out to be just as empty and distinguished as the heroine of Chekhov’s text. The mental block that characterizes the characters in Perceval’s plays is fed by the stigma of history. It is not entirely clear how to deal with the past and whether it is possible to re-evaluate it at all. Perceval rethinks the national identity of Belgians by citing dark aspects of the country’s history. In this way he tries not so much to understand the current mentality of the inhabitants of the country with the capital in Brussels, but to assess it clearly. Perceval’s performances show that the effects of actions and strategies to understand the world proposed by previous generations influence the perspective of contemporary Belgians. While this idea is quite obvious, Perceval does not lead the viewer through the shallows of banality, but offers them a very interesting and well-tailored concept, full of non-obvious associations and annoying ambiguities. I think these are the greatest qualities of the author’s work All the sorrow of Belgiumthat attract the Polish public and artists who like to consider ambiguity in defining the relationship between the past and the present.
The titles of each of the performances refer to the colors of the Belgian flag. black, Yellow and Red they form a thematically coherent whole of problematization of the darkest aspects of Flemish history – the colonialism of Congo, the collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War and finally the problems of assimilation and terrorism in present-day Belgium. While all parts of the trilogy are complementary, each part functions well as a self-generated theatrical work. They differ formally from each other, despite the fact that Perceval’s illustrative way of expression is preserved, leaving a gap of visual symbolism between the walls of the text.
In the first part of the trilogy, so Black: Congo the story is worked out in fragments, although it is easy to distinguish the characters in the performance. Chief among these is the African-American missionary of the Presbyterian Church, William Henry Sheppard, who went to Africa to convert and test the natives. This performance can be confronted with the work of James Baldwin, William Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Joseph Conrad, Aimé Césaire, but also Werner Herzog. Interestingly, the references and quotes to their work are not clearly positive. Echoing the experiences of Sheppard, who described the violent practices of the Belgian colonizers after his return to the United States, Perceval points out that the colonial perspective is not only a trace of ancient history, but also part of an aspect of the European tradition we are used to be proud of. Perceval presents those fragments of history that most painfully describe the brutal aspects of the exercise of power, which seem to have the highest value. The fragmentary story of Sheppard and his companions is a description of abuses that make no sense except their own domination and impunity.
In turn, the showYellow: Rex is the story of a Belgian Nazi family who lived during the Second World War. Each of them saw in The Third Thing an image of the utopia they assumed had been promised by Hitler. In different ways: either by going to the Eastern Front with the Flemish Legion and German soldiers like Jef, by dedicating themselves to Dietse Vriendenscharen, the girls’ unit of the National Socialist Youth of Flanders like Mie, or simply repeating that over and over again. the revolution is a matter of honor and dignity, just like Marije. Although the middle part of the trilogy seemed to me the least engrossing, I remember most of its charming elements and details, which can be called beautiful without exaggeration. The snow that fell on the characters covered with the stigma of history, the dance of the white flags or the choreography of the members of the Flemish Legion on the verge of eroticism and violence were filled with content, no less than long monologue sequences and conversations of characters. I admit that I expected a more expressive judgment from the director, although the very explicit portrayal of Belgians as active Nazis in my homeland must have caused controversy. The last fragment, in which the former Nazis were not held responsible for their actions during the war, seemed to me extremely eloquent and painful. “Habit is second nature to man” – we hear words spoken by a Nazi in a white bathrobe at the edge of the pool.
Why is the end of the second part so bitter reveals the third part of the trilogy, so Red: Holy War. This performance was about more recent times, in which the effects of the actions illustrated in the first and second parts are fully justified. The assimilation of refugees from Syria and migrants from the Middle East cannot be said without a context explaining to the public what the problem really is. According to Perceval’s performance, bigotry stems from the depth of European identity that has taken this form long enough to become a permanent stain on the banner of openness and acceptance.
The last part was the most polymorphic of all. The individualism of Western culture was emphasized by the scattering of actors and actresses on the stage, weaving a web of polyphony and intertwining independent life stories. Their words exuded despair, fear, uncertainty and disappointment, but also an overwhelming loneliness. In the maze of everyday dramas, there was a hero who was hesitant to participate in the litany – Ibrahim, the father of a boy accused of participating in a terrorist attack ordered by ISIS. His tragic history of migration from a hostile country finds no place among other explanations. It is impossible to express it, which can be seen in the gestures that reveal uncertainty and in direct statements. “I have no words for it” we hear from the stage.
The connections between the different parts of the trilogy were most clearly accentuated with the setting and music. The same chairs appeared in every performance and the table, although its appearance changed, was always the center of the stage. Gysel himself, who played drums, piano and guitar in the trilogy, appeared on the right side of the stage each time, and the theme of the melodies he composed returned in a slightly modified version during the following parts of the trilogy. Each of the parts was performed absolutely perfectly and the dramaturgy of each of the performances was executed in such a way that there was never an empty, unwarranted chasm or exaggeration full of pathos on stage.
I have the feeling that I may have to confront the work of the Belgian with the so-called “Polishness”, but it seems to me a breakneck task. Watching Perceval’s performances, I felt that it was necessary to rationally identify the podium problems with the state of the Polish mentality, but despite the attempts – I did not find a good Polish equivalent of such a dedicated revision as in the case of a Belgian director. Although the control and processing of national identity by Perceval on stage is done in an accusatory tone, without knowledge of the Belgian context it is difficult to say to what extent the problems described in the performances plague the mentality of today’s Belgians, and to what extent to the extent that they torment only a handful of particularly privileged people. We don’t learn this from Perceval’s performances, but it doesn’t seem to me that there was room for it in any of the performances per se. Given that the director has no hope of improving Europeans’ relationship with history in the face of the accusatory tone, even Żelazowska’s question of “whether the change in mentality of Western society is real” may seem like more problematic, perhaps unsolvable.
- Malta Festival: Luk Perceval, All the sorrow of Belgium
- Arena hall
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