A playwright for our age
Flemish writer Tom Lanoye (pictured) has a reputation for using a language that rolls satisfyingly around the tongue and seduces the ear with its rhythms. With a 10-part adaptation of his novel Het Goddelijke Monster (The Godly Monster) to be aired on Flemish TV later this year, a planned feature film of Het Derde Huwelijk (The Third Marriage) and his recent success with De Russen (The Russians) at theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, his international reputation seems to be soaring.
Flanders Today spoke with Tom Lanoye at the arts festival of Avignon
When I met him last week at the annual arts festival in Avignon, France, he was wearing his characteristically generous smile and spoke eloquently about the creation of his new play, Bloed en Rozen (Blood and Roses), showing this week in the prestigious Cour d’Honneur courtyard of the Palais des Papes. Bloed en Rozen is about Jeanne d’Arc, the peasant girl, the virgin warrior, who led her people into battle against the English before being burnt as a witch. The other main character, her contemporary Gilles de Rais, turned to sexual perversity and magic before suffering a similar fate.
Why did you choose this period and these characters?
I see the play as the third part of a triptych of history plays about the relationship between power, war, art and religion. My earlier play Mephisto Forever dealt with the role of art under a totalitarian regime, and Atropa was based on the Greek tragedies about families destroyed by the Trojan War. Bloed en Rozen broaches some big universal themes, but as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht knew well, history plays are a great way to look at our present realities. During the creative process we kept asking ourselves. “What can we do to make it more relevant?”
Does that mean that the plays are inspired by the current situation in Belgium?
It’s like the slogan “Think globally, act locally.” I have to work from what’s happening around me in Flanders and put it into a broader context so that the local becomes global, universal even. The play examines the Machiavellian role played by the bishops in the trials of Jeanne and Gilles and asks the question “When does religion become politics?” We live in secular societies nowadays and we thought religion would become less intrusive. But it is an illusion to imagine that institutions themselves would disappear. This is a topical issue on many levels.
The triptych has met with critical acclaim at home and abroad, so we can conclude that your collaboration with director Guy Cassiers at Antwerp’s theatre company Het Toneelhuis is a fruitful one.
The strength lies in the freedom Guy gives us and in the team work. There is a long process of research and discussion in which the dramaturg Erwin Jansen plays a major role, but actors, designers and technicians also have their say. We invited a musicologist to introduce us to Flemish polyphony. Guy is willing to listen and try something new up until the last very last rehearsal. I have time to do my own research, read around the topic and the period, and look at the paintings, like the Flemish primitives in the case of Bloed en Rozen and I like to write for actors I know and admire. I have the time and the freedom to keep working and developing my text. This is how theatre should be made. It’s how great playwrights like Shakespeare, Moliere and the Greeks created their plays, through strong creative collaborations.
Cassiers has really put Het Toneelhuis on the international map. How do you explain the popularity of the work abroad?
Cassiers is unique because logically speaking he shouldn’t really exist as a theatre director. Here you have someone who studied art; he’s a plastic artist with incredible imaginative powers. But he also has an outstanding literary sensibility.
Do you think this combination accounts for the popularity of the work in France?
Cassiers works to strengthen the text and the French appreciate that. They have a long tradition of literary theatre and a healthy respect for visual aesthetics.
You said once that Belgians re wellequipped to create art from their understanding of war, Belgium having been the battlefield of preference of the European powers. Yet there is also something special about the way Belgians work the issues of our age into art, the way the codes of representation have been redefined over the last 30 years by a generation of Flemish practitioners.
Belgium is a young country and we don’t suffer from the suffocating weight of theatrical tradition you find in countries like Britain, where there are great actors but none of the organic thinking without which theatre is a dead art form. Flanders has become rich very quickly and this has overturned the three-party political system and has secularized society. It has opened up the political spectrum to the extreme right wing, but it also opened channels for young people like Luc Perceval, Jan Lauwers, Jan Fabre and many others to start experimenting with culture. Out of this tension grew an incredible laboratory in which audiences and theatre makers have influenced each other so as to react to phenomena like the rise of the far right.
I think the creativity and imaginative powers of contemporary Flemish performing artists are good examples of how art can flourish then both audiences and artists reject constraints, don’t you think?
It grew organically and we continue to feed each other. In art, the personal, the political and the social are all linked. We used postmodernism to develop our performance, but we gave it content and that appeals to audiences at home and abroad. I like to say that a little bit of fascism is good for the arts.