Toneelhuis play explores migrant crisis through refugee’s eyes


Concluding a topical diptych at Toneelhuis, director Guy Cassiers has tapped Philippe Claudel’s poignant novel about an unlikely friendship between two old men

An unusual fairy tale

Last season, as part of its ongoing Beyond Borders initiative, Antwerp’s Toneelhuis brought to the stage Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek’s text Grensgeval (Borderline), a damning account of Europeans’ response to the ongoing refugee crisis.

But with two sides to every story, the Antwerp theatre’s autumn opener probes the flipside of the tragedy: What does it feel like for the refugee adrift in a foreign country?

Het kleine meisje van meneer Linh (Mister Linh and His Child) is adapted from a 2005 novel of the same name by French writer and filmmaker Philippe Claudel. In common with much of his oeuvre, it is preoccupied with survivor’s guilt and trauma.

Mister Linh charts the travails of an old man who takes refuge in Europe with his infant granddaughter after the rest of his family is killed in a war in an unspecified Asian country. “The child is the only thing he has,” says dramaturg Erwin Jans, who adapted the work alongside director Guy Cassiers. “He doesn’t know the language, the codes, the rules. At a certain point he meets another man and, although they cannot understand each other’s language, they become the best of friends.”

A story of friendship

Over the course of this halting friendship, the story of Linh’s interlocutor, the European Mister Bark, is also revealed. Widowed shortly before the pair meet on a park bench, Bark is ridden with guilt owing to his long past soldiering days. He fought in a colonial war in Linh’s country (likely Vietnam, when it was part of the former French colony Indochina).

These traumas form a common bond between the two men that endures despite several grim twists, including Linh’s transferral to a psychiatric ward, and a particularly haunting last-minute reversal involving his granddaughter.

“It’s really a story about the friendship between them and the effort they make to understand one another,” says Jans. “And hope: that it’s possible to communicate, despite their losses and the background of this terrible war.”

It’s a kind of modern fairy tale, but told in such a simple way that it really confuses you

- Dramaturg Erwin Jans

As such, it’s an entirely different beast to its predecessor, Grensgeval – a complex, polyphonic text in which a chorus of European voices weigh in on the migrant crisis. Cassiers opted to stage it with four actors addressing a silent mass of dancers standing in for the refugees.

Grensgeval “is more like the brain – the discourse, the arguments, the shifts,” says Jans. “It makes you think, whereas with this story you get very emotionally involved. It’s a kind of modern fairy tale, but told in such a simple way that it really confuses you. It hits hard and deep, like fairy tales do.”

One key change was made in adapting the work: Rather than an omniscient narrator, Linh and his friend tell the story in the third person, and all the other characters they meet are merely words projected onto a screen behind them – a tested Cassiers manoeuvre emphasising the duo’s isolation.

Many countries, three versions

Sometimes, as in a comic, the typography reflects emotional states; when a character gets angry, the words get bigger, playfully reinforcing the story’s fairy-tale aspects.

Otherwise, the mise en scène is simple: two actors, two chairs and two cameras, which sporadically film the duo, relaying their expressions onto the big screen. “These are the elements with which we try to recreate that whole world,” says Jans.

The play kicks off later this month at Toneelhuis with Gene Bervoets and Koen De Sutter (pictured above) in the main roles, and then will tour Belgium and Holland from January to May of next year in the original Dutch-language version.

Fittingly for a play about (mis)communication, further versions are planned in French and English. For these shows, veteran thespian Bervoets will continue to interpret the Linh role and be joined by a different local actor – first up, stage and screen star Jérôme Kircher for France.

Portable theatre

It’s a model that the internationally minded Toneelhuis has already tested with Grensgeval, which was performed in different countries by dance students studying at Belgian or French dance academies. “In the past we did a lot of co-productions, especially with France, but now we're going one step further,” says Jans. “By working in the language of the co-producer and asking them to provide an actor, it becomes a co-creation.”

It’s a communal spirit exemplified by another member of Toneelhuis, former refugee Mokhallad Rasem. After last season’s Zielzoekers (Soul Seekers), based on the time he spent in a Belgian asylum, the Iraqi-born playwright’s Delivery Theatre will take the production right into people’s homes.

Anyone can call up to request a performance, and Rasem will then zip over on his scooter, a miniature version of the Bourla theatre stowed in the box on the back. Using this prop and little figures, he’ll then create the show on-site.

It’s not that we want to reject the stage – on the contrary, we want to add to it

- Dramaturg Erwin Jans

“From five people upward, there’s a discount. It’s like a pizza delivery, and of course it plays a little bit on the two meanings of ‘delivery’,” explains Jans. “It’s something very new that he’s still working on, but people can already start calling to make appointments.”

A few weeks ago, together with the Antwerp-based theatre company MarthaTentatief, Toneelhuis kicked off its own intriguing, community-minded project: The Office of Urban Enthusiasm. It aims to react to the fast-changing dynamic of cities witnessing the rise of mass immigration – or “super-diversity” in sociologists’ parlance – in real time.   

The project is set to run for several years, with Toneelhuis staging city-wide shows and lectures in tandem with other organisations and artists. “What Mokhallad is doing with his motorbike is the same thing that we want to do with this project,” Jans explains. “Go into the city and develop things in a quicker way and on a different scale to performances here in the Bourla,” he says.

“It’s not that we want to reject the stage – on the contrary, we want to add to it: We want to create other, temporary stages in the city.”

28 September to 6 October, Bourlaschouwburg, Komedieplaats 18, Antwerp

Erwin Jans’ tips for the rest of the season

Poquelin II
Actors’ collective Stan are on familiar ground with this Molière-inspired production, created in tandem with Olympique Dramatique, among others. “They worked with Molière’s texts back in 2004 with the first Poquelin, and for this they’re going to work with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, but also pieces from other texts,” says Jans. “With Stan, a lot can happen during rehearsal as they start putting the text together.” Premieres on 9 November

Vergeef Ons (May We Be Forgiven)
Guy Cassiers adapts AM Homes’ pitch-black 2012 novel about a family that collapses after the husband flirts with his brother’s wife at Thanksgiving – cue murder, mayhem, car crashes and the patriarch ending up with sole charge of his nephew and nieces. “At the end there’s a reconstruction of a new kind of complicated family,” says Jans. “It has this hope in it.” Premieres on 22 February, 2018

Experimental troupe FC Bergman will tackle William Gaddis’ eponymous cult novel about an 11-year-old who storms the stock market in 1970s New York. The ambitious set will include a multi-storey apartment building. “It’s an analysis of how our modern world is in the grip of speculation,” reveals Jans. “If a child can cause so much misery, what does that say about the American financial system?” Premieres on 22 March, 2018