Focus Rudi Meulemans & De Parade (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Jan 2004English

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In this way he learnt that another person’s heart and mind are unknowable, even unapproachable, except in fantasies and projections which in reality are elements from the life of the knower, not of the other.

Martha Nussbaum (from Wat Liefde weet, Emoties en moreel oordelen, Boom/ Parrèsia, Amsterdam 1999, second impression)


Rudi Meulemans, stage director and writer for the Brussels theatre company De Parade, will this season complete his Triptych of the Good Life. After Caravaggio (2002) and Life is all we have (2003 – on the artist Francis Bacon), comes Don’t touch here (about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, among others). The theme of Rudi Meulemans’ work is biography and is characterised by austerity: this is theatre reduced to its essence of ‘actors and a play.


When Rudi Meulemans (b. 1963) was about sixteen, a friend took him to a performance by Pina Bausch in Rotterdam; it was most likely Café Müller. This made a powerful impression on him because he saw that ‘theatre’ could be a great deal more than and completely different from what he had previously seen traditional companies performing. The openness with which Pina Bausch set to work pressed a button somewhere inside him. When he studied at the RITS (then still called RITCS), it was mainly the lecturer Alex van Royen who showed him the way. Meulemans started to read – plays, philosophical works and literature; he went to films and the theatre; he started to ‘fill himself up’ in all sorts of ways. ‘Because,’ as he himself said, ‘that is after all what one’s studies are for.’ Immediately after graduating he established his own theatre organisation called De Parade and that has always remained his sole field of action. He has never branched out to direct anywhere else. The actors he has assembled around him are also remarkably loyal in their professional choices. Even though Willem Carpentier, Caroline Rottier, Andreas Van de Maele, Hilde Wils and, more recently, Tom de Hoog, were never fully employed for long periods (the company only received an operating subsidy from 1993 to 1997), it seems they always return.


When, from 1987, Rudi Meulemans started to develop his own projects at De Parade, he at first opted to direct existing plays (by Wolfgang Bauer, David Mercer, etc.). In the initial stages, taking an existing text as a basis enabled him to concentrate on the staging, the performance and the actors. His production of De Lederman spreekt met Hubert Fichte (1991) signalled the mature culmination of this first period of learning and he saw it as the true starting point for De Parade. It is true that a great many elements of both form and content seen in this production were to return constantly in later work; one might say that as from De Lederman, Rudi Meulemans had found his own style. De Lederman in fact actually existed: he was Hans Eppendorfer, a murderer, ex-convict and homosexual who after his release told the story of his life in three interviews with the journalist Hubert Fichte.


The choice of a biography of a living person, the focus on someone in a marginal position in society, the conversation/interview as an objectifying form for theatrical dialogue, the thematic link between sexuality and violence, etc., are all elements which were to largely define Rudi Meulemans’ style and theatrical world. In addition, a working method was immediately established in which a new production naturally emerged from the work done on a previous one: in his interviews, Lederman talks at length about the Italian poet and film director Pasolini (and his violent death). Pasolini was then the leading character in the next project by De Parade, De knie van de voetballer. The work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault was present as study material in Meulemans’ work from the very beginning, which in 1997 led to the play Rue d’Ulm, on Foucault’s life and thought, etc.


To quote Rudi Meulemans, ‘letting one project run on into the next is actually – this may sound rather banal – more a way of living than of working. I don’t see making plays as a job; life and work coincide; even if you’re not rehearsing or performing, the work carries on anyway. One does not seek out these parallels or lines, they arise almost of their own accord.’
In this way, one can see Paula, a maid with the Freud family in Herinneringen aan de Donau (1994), as foreshadowing Jessie Lightfoot in the play about the painter Francis Bacon, Life is all we have (2003): in both cases ‘a woman in the shadow of...’. In the same way the relationship between Erika and Klaus Mann in the monologue Mann (1998) can be compared to that between Paul and Jane Bowles in Marokko (1997) and that of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Don’t touch here (2004): a strange, erotically highly-charged complicity (though not experienced as sexual) between sister and brother, man and wife, male and female friends. And again, the decline due to Aids is followed in Modern Nature (1993, based on the diaries of the British film director Derek Jarman), Rue d’Ulm (regarding Foucault) and Don’t touch here (regarding Robert Mapplethorpe). The ‘darkroom scene’ in the last of these three even refers back to the sauna episode in De Lederman. And so on...


After De Lederman, Meulemans started, initially together with Willem Carpentier, writing or compiling his own plays. De Lederman became the first of a four-part cycle called 1991-1994 Journalistiek werk. The other parts are De knie van de voetballer, mainly comprising writings by and interviews with Pasolini; Amerikaanse dromen, a documentary full of witness statements, official documents, hearings, etc., in connection with the report compiled by the Meese Commission, set up by President Reagen, to draw up a law to prohibit pornography in the USA; and Herinneringen aan de Donau, which focuses on the life of Sigmund Freud in the Nazi period and on one of his best-known patients, ‘the wolfman’. One of the themes that links these four plays is that of all-destroying desire: ‘a longing that subordinates everything to itself. A desire that destroys the world in order to extract from it one single object of desire. And then it proceeds to the destruction of the self, to non-being, to death as the only possible solution to this never ending violence.’


Rudi Meulemans likes to work in cycles (cf. the triptych he is completing this season) because it brings a sort of restfulness to the work: the things you have no place for in the first part may fit naturally into the second. And once again the work is like a stream that flows ever onward. When in 1995 Rudi Meulemans sought to add depth to his work, a new zest, he returned briefly to the tried and tested method from the start of his career: choosing existing writings and directing them so that questions regarding the writing itself moved into the background for a time. In De Woestelingen he combined writings by Harold Pinter and Joe Orton. In the following project, called Marokko, about the relationship between the married writers Paul Bowles, a homosexual, and Jane Bowles, a lesbian, his ‘reflection’ already bore fruit. In fact, Marokko signalled the greater role played by emotionality in both his writing and directing. The actress Hilde Wils played an important part in this evolution.


The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. Michel Foucault

(quoted from James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault)


The ‘documentary’ work from the first period of De Parade was accompanied by an acting style based on a certain detachment: the actors’ involvement was of a rather intellectual nature; their acting presented a sort of comment on the writing. In the new way of writing, which started with Marokko and became especially clear as from Caravaggio (2002), the documentary biographic material was intertwined with more ‘fictional’ elements: these were things that do not belong in the biography but are, rather, taken in a barely noticeable way from the lives of the actors and the director; so in fact they do have a documentary and/or biographical nature but on some kind of secondary level. The actors’ performance crosses the boundary too: it shifts from objectifying detachment towards emotional empathy. For example, in De knie van de voetballer, Pasolini’s voice is divided between three actors, in the later work a particular character’s lines are linked to just a single actor, while in the latest projects, Tom de Hoog, for example, corresponds to Caravaggio, Bacon and Mapplethorpe, or Hilde Wils to Jessie Lightfoot and Patti Smith. In the performance, Rudi Meulemans and his actors try above all to experience the here and now and also to share this sensation with their audience.


In parallel with this, Rudi Meulemans’ writing is evolving towards greater unity, structure and purity. The early documentary projects, compiled from a variety of material, were by their very nature fragmentary. In De triptiek van het goede leven, both monologue and dialogue are fitted into delineated, often ‘religiously tinged’ structures (triptych, the stations of the cross, etc.) and repetition and references are used in the text in an almost musical way. The characters Meulemans puts at the heart of his work are always on the margins of society; they are very often artists. But even if the true subject is these people’s biography – their life and work – there is (almost inevitably if one is dealing with marginality) always a political element; in such plays as Amerikaanse dromen, Mann and Hoop en Glorie (2002) this political aspect is even the main driving force behind the theatrical development.
To quote Rudi Meulemans, ‘I do not want to take up a moralistic position, condemning things, but rather the opposite: I want to show possibilities, show those unfamiliar things that often have the finger pointed at them. Political interest is a way of giving shape to your anger and steering it in a particular direction. I don’t like the theatre of the grand gesture, so in fact there is no place for anger depicted on stage. Nevertheless, I do want to express this anger, which is against, among other things, the fear on which many political decisions are based. The prohibition of pornography, for example, is based only on the fear of pornography. I often write about people who release their aggression in art and sublimate it in creativity. Caravaggio, Francis Bacon and Robert Mapplethorpe, the leading characters in De triptiek van het goede leven, all do this. I took this subtitle from ‘the philosophy of the good life’ about which the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum and others have written.
It is about finding an empathy with which to make the unfamiliar familiar. These three people (Caravaggio, Bacon, Mapplethorpe) have achieved ‘the good life’, by intertwining life and work, by shifting their own boundaries. Perhaps what ‘the good life’ means is: the convergence of life and work, and the peace you find therein because you feel you are doing well. In this sense I do not see the art as an escape, nor as a consolation, but as a provider of insight, whereby you are better able to cope with life and deal with your problems.’

‘... that according to me there are two ways philosophers can help us in the question of the good life. One is to engage in detailed questions into one’s personal life, looking at choices, the role played by emotions, etc. Since people do not achieve the good life on their own, there is also another completely different way, by talking about the structure of just political institutions. It seems to me that the philosopher has a part to play in both cases.’

(Martha Nussbaum)



Translation Gregory Ball