Focus Jan Decorte: the theatre and life

Kaaitheater bulletin Sep 2001English

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There are the images that will always stay in your mind; the ones you take with you ‘beyond the grave’. The way Mieke Verdin cleaves open the wall of the low, dark cellar in De Hamletmachine with a huge butcher’s knife and the blinding light (of hope?) streams in… The way, in Bloetwollefduivel, that Jan Decorte, as a furious Macbeth with an unrecognisable, bandaged head, slashes out on all sides leaving bloody traces and literally destroying himself in the process... The way Sigrid Vinks, as the honest, loving Marieslijk-with-the-red-knees is stared in the back by fifty extras and from the front is held in the gaze of the spectators like a rabbit caught in the spotlights...


A few words about breaks

Jan Decorte’s life and work is full of breaks. Anyone who makes breaks – in their lives or their work – has to be strong and lucid; strong so as to assimilate the self-imposed devastation into their everyday work and to seek out new veins to mine; lucid enough to know why the old is no longer valid and what the new should by contrast contain. Making breaks means transforming yourself into a new person. Jan Decorte’s career started with his writing his own baroque plays; after that no one expected his meticulous and inventive work – probably influenced by the German repertory theatre of the seventies – on big classical plays (Cymbeline, Maria Magdalena, King Lear, Torquato Tasso, De Hamletmachine etc.). Nor did any expect the subsequent turnaround into his ‘poetic action phase’, when he did not present his staging of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but transformed it into the ‘children’s game-like’ Scènes/Sprookjes; he continued down the same path with Mythologies (based on the writings of Goethe, Hölderlin and Decorte himself) and Anatomie (based on Titus Andronicus). His interest in comedy and the ‘simplified rewriting of the classics’ was already starting to make its appearance (cf. his own play Kleur is alles and In het kasteel, based on Hamlet). When he found that this route led to a dead-end in the ‘endgame’ of Macbethparty, he took a new leap into slapstick comedies (including the Aids Trilogy). His rewriting of the classics (Woyzeck, King Lear, Titus Andronicus and Macbeth once again) in his own, childish language, signified yet another break from what had gone before. After this Macbeth (called Bloetwollefduivel), little was heard from Jan Decorte the theatre man for some time, but the deep abyss of a depression was followed by a revival that resulted in the series of ‘condensations’ of classical plays in which he is currently involved (cf. Bêt Noir, Marieslijk, Sasja Danse, Amlett and, coming soon, ‘BETONLIEBE + FLEISCHKRIEG’ MEDEIA). Despite the breaks he has made in the course of the ups and downs of his own life, there is still a clear ‘gulf-bridging’ line that runs throughout his work, that of his quest for an ever-greater simplicity, for an essence of theatre.


A few words about simplicity

This search for simplicity, for the essence of theatre – ‘you get up on a box and say something and you make people interested’ – was actually already present in Decorte’s work at a very early stage. One image that still clings is that of Viviane De Muynck – then a Conservatory student under Decorte – as the lisping Princess Imogen in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: primitive, childlike, essential. Is it not the great desire of every artist to go so deeply and intensely through their own repetitions to reach the ultimate aim of purity and simplicity? ‘In the end,’ says Jan Decorte, ‘theatre is all about childishness, with the past, with sitting in the cupboard, with filthy manners.’ His theatrical work gradually assumed an increasingly physically intuitive nature. In this respect he is akin to Heiner Müller (whose plays he has staged more than once), who said, ‘Kunst kommt aus dem Körper und nicht aus einem vom Körper getrennten Kopf. ... der Kopf gehört nicht ins Theater, denn dann macht man keine Erfahrung. Erfahrung kann man nur blind machen.’ Jan Decorte’s theatrical labours are also based on experience; in his early career he certainly did not resist theory and rationality, but in his quest for the essence, spontaneity of thought and deed, and intuitive and open use of the context, gradually gained the upper hand. As he himself says, ‘Everything is better without structure. You don’t need structure: everything arranges itself.’


A few words about Macbeth, violence and politics

Every true stage artist has one play from the international repertoire that has a special meaning to them, and which is their play. In Jan Decorte’s case this may well be Macbeth. In an interview he said that one day his mother gave him a copy of Macbeth and this aroused his love of theatre. His thesis for the RITCS, where he studied, was also about Macbeth. His 1985 Macbethparty was one of his ‘endgames’: the audience was invited to an imposing but eccentric mansion, the host Jan Decorte and hostess Sigrid Vinks put on a short act on the balcony, scraps of play were hanging on the walls, there were drinks and that was that. At that time everybody thought this was Decorte’s full-stop in the theatre; it was almost impossible to go any further than this destruction of the codes. But he carried on and in 1994 made the blood-curdling Bloetwollefduivel, an adaptation of Macbeth, another of his ‘endgames’, this time taking him to the verge of self-destruction. What do you do if the woods start advancing towards you? Jan Decorte is fascinated by violence, by playing the violent one (as shown by his interest in plays like Titus Andronicus, which he has already adapted twice, once as Anatomie and once as Titus Andonderonikustmijnklote). But his relationship with violence and power remains theatrical. In his political career (he was a member of parliament for some time, first in the ROSSEM party and then as an independent) he presented himself as someone who took up his individual, revolutionary sword against ‘Evil’, but who cannot endure party programmes. As he put it, ‘Politics should lead to a broad margin of dissidence from pulverized individuals.’ His political course could only be a purely individual one. His disappointment with politics is the expression of the division between those who strive for ‘major power’ and those who do not want it. This rift seems to be unbridgeable, just as the rift between policy-makers and artists is ‘quite definitely’ unbridgeable and virtually has to be.


A few words about a way of living and working

Jan Decorte has also made several breaks when it comes to his way of working. Whereas in the eighties he was a sort of tyrannical director who, while driving his actors hard, rehearsed very long and intensively, today he is primarily in search of love and friendship with the people he works with and wants to rehearse and fix things as little as possible. He is concerned with the process, not with what was thought up beforehand. Whereas he was formerly emphatically a ‘fringe director’ who did his own thing and was little concerned with how it was received, he gradually concentrated more and more on entering into a direct relationship with the audience. He no longer wanted to ‘impress the audience with an utterly outdated authority’; he sought a ‘relationship without power, a theatre without holiness’. Whether the performance was interpreted or not was entirely up to the spectator. His attitude contains one constant: ‘I never stepped into the machine. I did it my way.’ Jan Decorte has always ‘deliberately and contentedly remained outside the little world of theatre’ with an unrelenting honesty towards himself. That takes courage. A second constant is that for him, life and theatre, love and work are all one and can never be separated from each other.



Willy Thomas as Gloucester in King Lear – after his eyes have been put out – putting everything into a saxophone solo in front of the curtains; the blind musician who arouses pity and is all the same only playing for himself anyway… The closing scene in Sasja Danse, Decorte’s ‘condensation’ of Chekhov’s Ivanov, in which he himself, in the title role, is no longer capable of love or action, and simply, stupidly, vacantly finds his chair collapsing under him… The closing scene in Maria Magdalena, when Senne Rouffaer/Master Anton has spoken his final line – ‘Ich verstehe die Welt nicht mehr’ – and the way several characters (the world?) watch through the narrow asymmetrical little door in the white paper set as Master Anton goes to his ruin…


(translated by Gregory Ball)