Public has love/hate relationship with new Vandekeybus production


A Wim Vandekeybus production followed by boos from the crowd? Welcome to the divisive Monkey Sandwich

Urban legends

Last weekend, I witnessed something I’d never before experienced in Belgium: a Wim Vandekeybus production was followed by a smattering of boos. The man behind me was a bit more subtle, muttering to his companion as the lights went up: “That was incredibly bad.”

At some points in the performance, I agreed with him. But, by the end, I felt that Monkey Sandwich was the sum of its parts - an unsettling, grisly vision of humanity that, regardless of its delivery - which occasionally leaves something to be desired - instils one with a feeling of dread that is difficult to shake. Is it any wonder someone might say "boooo"?

Dutch speakers use the phrase broodje aap verhaal ("monkey sandwich story") to refer to those persistent rumours that in English we call urban legends.Vandekeybus has made a film (in English) referring to a number of these legends through a series of short vignettes, where one man (British actor Jerry Killick, an excellent choice) plays different characters.

As the film plays, a solitary dancer onstage experiences - or perhaps re-enacts - much of the film's action, though in a sort of strange, alternate universe.

It starts off, in fact, very promising for the audience, who laugh as we meet the onscreen characters that pop in and out of the varying stories. In the first, a theatre director (Killick) tries to deal with his sensitive actors, while at the same time showing his crazier sides: at one point, he becomes extremely angry when his actor doesn't really eat his victim, like the Shakespearian character does. "It's all fake!" he screams.

Later, he's working with a woman playing Ahab in Moby Dick; she gets a bit too into character, hurling around her director like a rag doll, as if he is the white whale incarnate (which in much of the film, he is).
What does Shakespeare have to do with Moby Dick? Nothing, and the film juts in and out of different stories and scenes rather irrationally, much like a David Lynch movie. Themes and symbols are introduced and abandoned, only to show up later - pigs, children and hunters playing major roles.

Vandekeybus, one of Belgium's top three choreographers and one of the most sought-after in Europe, is known for challenging - if sometimes schizophrenic - work. But his pieces are also highly entertaining, evidenced by return audiences in the last couple of years to previous productions like Spiegel and Menske. Monkey Sandwich is not only complex and distorted, the one dancer (Damien Chapelle) isn't dancing so much as crawling around, making a lot of pig noises and occasionally submerging himself in a large vat of water. Did I mention yet that he is naked throughout?

It all adds up to seeming like a lot of avant-garde nonsense. And yet, by the end, I didn't mind that overwhelming sense of not knowing what's going on. Like a David Lynch film, in fact, it's not as important to understand it as to feel it.

Whatever Vandekeybus wants to say with Monkey Sandwich, what I heard was a number of unsettling realities. When you have children, you must give away a part of yourself. When you try to change the natural course of the universe, you will be met with disaster. What people are willing do to animals, they are also willing to do to each other. And urban legends, though not necessarily true, are the manifestation of fears that derive from situations that are all-too true.

Days later, the visions of Monkey Sandwich are still ricocheting around in my head. Vandekeybus didn't exactly entertain me, but he affected me. And that's what art is for.

14 October, 20.00
Stadsschouwburg Vlamingstraat 29, Bruges

26-29 October, 20.30
STUK, Naamsestraat 96 Leuven

For more dates, visit

Photo: © Pieter-Jan De Pue

Monkey Sandwich

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