Focus Jan Lauwers & Needcompany (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Sep 2004English

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This summer saw the opening of Isabella’s Room, the new production by Jan Lauwers & Needcompany, at the Avignon Festival. On 22nd September 2004 Needcompany will be performing it in Belgium for the first time, for the festive opening of the 2004-2005 Kaaitheater season. In this focus article we look back at the 25 years of theatre work done by the author, director and designer Jan Lauwers, first in Epigonenteater zlv and later in Needcompany.


‘You know, the only thing I’ve never lost is my curiosity.’

(The writer, in Invictos (1991), based on writings by Ernest Hemingway.)


In 1979 a number of artists of all sorts – none of them had any theatre training – came together in Antwerp to form the Epigonenensemble, which was later rechristened Epigonenteater zlv. ‘Zlv’ stood for ‘zonder leiding van’ (without the leadership of): a clear choice these artists had made not to apply any hierarchy to their working organisation. In so choosing, and also in their street entertainment and acts and in their first stage play Reeds gewond en het is niet eens oorlog (1980), Epigonenteater took up a position on the line between the theatre of the seventies – with its focus on politics – and that of the eighties, with its formal elan.
Years later, in an interview in the June 2000 issue of Etcetera, Jan Lauwers spoke of the choice he had to make, when setting up Epigonenteater, between entering politics or continuing with theatre, thereby referring to the initial collaboration between Andreas Baader and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Baader became a terrorist, Fassbinder started making films. In 1979 Lauwers opted for theatre, but in No Comment (2003), one of his recent plays, he wrote a monologue on... Ulrike Meinhof. However much Jan Lauwers, on the basis of this initial choice, increasingly sought out abstraction and beauty, this old division between the political and the artistic, between the world and aesthetics, has always remained palpable, and more than this, the tension between the two – as a consequence of a highly personal handling of this conflict – has become something like the driving force behind his artistic practice.


‘One of the most frightening phenomena in history of the human mind is the avoidance of the concrete.’

(Elias Canetti, quote used in ça va, (1989).)


It is not only this life-choice that gave shape to the course taken by Lauwers the play-maker, but also his very first artistic choice, which was to study plastic art. In this way he provided his ultimate theatrical philosophy with unusual foundations: his thinking on art initially developed in the visual arts. Beuys, Kounellis, Arte Povera and the Conceptual artists had a profound influence on his work for the stage. As a painter and drawer who handles the clear elements of line and colour, Lauwers must have seen the theatre as an impure, perverse medium with no core of its own: it makes use of a hotchpotch of people, images, sounds, movements, light, and so on. What interests him in theatre is its anthropological aspect: by working with living beings you can ask questions about human behaviour, about the way the world works.
In dE demonstratie (1983) and in the location project De achtergrond van een verhaal (1984), Lauwers portrayed the whole community of residents in a block of flats: a microcosm in which the spectator was able to observe several variations on this ‘human behaviour’. The last theatre project by Epigonenteater zlv was

Incident in 1985 and this was also the first in which Jan Lauwers himself no longer performed. In 1987 Epigonenteater zlv dissolved and transferred its work to a new group called ‘Needcompany’; the designation ‘zlv’ was abandoned; Jan Lauwers took the artistic lead and from then on started to develop his own theatre work without compromise and in great detail. The name Needcompany refers to its first production, Need to know (1987). The name also refers to necessity and comes from the phrase ‘to need company’ – to create theatre you need a group. Virtually all Lauwers’ projects – from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1990 to Isabella’s Room in 2004 – tell not only the story in the play but also the story of the group of actors that is performing the play. The fusion of the strong and individual performers (including Simone Moesen, Grace Ellen Barkey, Mil Seghers, Tom Jansen, Dirk Roofthooft, Carlotta Sagna and Viviane De Muynck) into a powerful group that supports the whole range of his plays has for Lauwers always been the first and most important step in every working process: the dramaturgical foundation of his productions is the group standing on stage; Jan Lauwers is one of the few artistic directors in Flanders for whom ‘ensemble’ and ‘group formation’ are not empty words. He is still able to be really in love with his performers.


‘What more can I do than just watch standing on the side-line, without even trying to understand, looking on without laughing or crying, when necessity, together with desire, is destroyed.’

(The oracle in Orfeo (1993).)


In the first period of his work with Needcompany Lauwers made mainly plays in which he compiled a story of his own from existing literary material by such writers as Canetti, Pinter, Chekhov and Hemingway (Need to know, ça va, Invictos). In between times, as a sort of ‘pause’, he created two versions of plays by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and Antonius und Cleopatra in 1992): as a director, he considers staging an existing play only ‘halfway art’; after all, the author has already answered the question of ‘what?’, and the director is only left with the ‘how?’. Those first pieces were never really cheerful – death and violence were always present – but they radiated warmth and energy and had the occasional vein of humour. However, Lauwers’ world-view seemed gradually to darken. The opera Orfeo (1993; music by Walter Hus) was dominated by the blackness of despair.
The tone of the three parts of The Snakesong Trilogy (Le Voyeur, 1994; Le Pouvoir, 1995; Le Désir, 1996) was one of subdued darkness: the tears have dried up, the sorrow cannot even be expressed anymore. In addition, between the second and third parts of this trilogy Jan Lauwers created Needcompany’s Macbeth: his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s most violent and pessimistic play. The discourse that accompanied Snakesong/Le Pouvoir, whose script Lauwers wrote himself, displayed the shift that had taken place in that internal conflict of Lauwers, between the world and art, and between the political and the artistic. Lauwers redefined his position and took as his basis a text by Georges Bataille on the first human drawing, found in the cave at Lascaux: this rock wall shows a man with an erect penis and a bull he has killed, with its innards bulging out: eros and thanatos, la mort et ‘la petite mort’. Lauwers concluded that in 15,000 years little had changed; the holy trinity of sex, violence and death still dominated human life.
To quote Lauwers: ‘At some point we took the wrong direction and the only defence against it is indifference, because I want to be able to enjoy a drawing I do and I don’t want to carry a yoke. So that’s why I want to be arrogant and say, ‘It’s nothing to do with me’. All that’s left is to do your work as well as possible. That’s why I see art as ‘survival’. This indifference really rankles with me but it is still the most honest attitude. But it does not stop me from being touched by things.’


‘And when our bodies were united, we died together.’

(Leda, in Snakesong Part Two/Le Pouvoir (1995))


Voyeurism, looking but not interfering, the view of the outsider: in the nineties this was more or less the main theme in Lauwers’ work. The pursuit of beauty became the ‘antidote to the world’, the only defence against pointlessness. To quote Lauwers again, ‘One goes through life as a voyeur, watching and feeling how the heart beats faster when beauty triumphs.’ In the Needcompany world this voyeurism became the carrier of many meanings: in addition to ‘seeing what is going wrong in the world, but remaining aloof’, there is also the act of spying on both the pain and suffering of others and the pleasure they experience in the act of love; the gaze itself sexualises the object viewed; Orpheus was chosen as a figure whose downfall lies in looking (backward); voyeurism is also shown in the form of the ‘interrogation’, the cross-examination in the courtroom, in which the aim is to find out how the person questioned ‘did it’ (the details of the murder/dying, the details of the sexual act) and there is also the obscenity of the talk show in which every sort of intimacy is open to view. What is more, voyeurism is the fundamental relationship of the theatre: after all, the spectator is by definition someone who watches without interfering. And then in Needcompany’s plays there is also the voyeurism towards one’s own self, looking at one’s self, standing back from one’s own life: the distance we need to be able to reflect on ourselves and to become aware. Though this awareness does not make us happy.


Cleopatra: ‘What shall we do, Enobarbus?’

Enobarbus: ‘Think, and die.’

(William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, III, 13)


Despite the ‘strategy of indifference’ that Jan Lauwers holds to, the world continues to affect him. It should therefore come as no surprise that in his most recent works this image-maker par excellence takes up a position in opposition to the mediatisation of today’s society, where the manipulation of images plays such a major part.
As Lauwers says, ‘Theatre must be a counterweight to the mass media and create its own reality.’ It is precisely the attempt to stage such extreme situations as dying and coitus, which cannot actually be shown in the theatre, that makes this medium so interesting to him. In Images of Affection (2002), a sort of anthology of 15 years of Needcompany work, the theatrical images and the bodies that give shape to them are charged with feelings and affections. In No Comment Jan Lauwers asks whether stark images – images without comment or interpretation, images with no feeling, reduced to their abstract essence – can actually exist; what is more, in her monologue his Ulrike Meinhof does not avoid the rationale that divides everything into cause and effect. In the end she blows up the world (and herself?): disappearance as the ultimate act of impotent commitment. The struggle going on in Lauwers’ mind between the concrete and the abstract, between the world and beauty and between politics and art has certainly not been thrashed out or stabilised.
He continues to wrestle with the lie through the medium of art, though it is possible that the passing years bring a certain clemency to the struggle, a greater confidence in the human imagination: the story of Isabella’s Room is populated with characters that form a less raw family, a less violent human cluster than in previous projects (from De Struiskogel in 1984 through Snakesong/Le Pouvoir and Morning Song in 1999 to the film Goldfish Game in 2002). In his latest production, Isabella’s Room, moreover, Lauwers once again appears on stage, as an actor-director, as if he wanted to resume the most direct possible dialogue with the audience. Jan Lauwers’ internal conflict appears to have come to a provisional synthesis (though perhaps a rather shaky one) between – as he says – the vitalism of Zorba, the impassioned control of the Roman Antony and the contemplation of the Asian Buddha; perhaps we can also add to that the sorrowful song of Orpheus, the singer… One may or may not like Jan Lauwers’ plays, but they never leave you cold: in this sense the struggle between indifference and aloofness is ultimately decided by the spectator, the voyeur.


‘I will not yield. I will not yield. I will not yield...’

(The closing words of Needcompany’s Macbeth (1996), repeated over and over again by Viviane De Muynck, who plays Macbeth.)



(Translated by Gregory Ball)