War and Turpentine stage adaptation premieres in Antwerp


Jan Lauwers of Needcompany has adapted the award-winning Flemish novel War and Turpentine for the theatre, with English surtitles

‘The 20th century is impossible to understand’

“One thing sticks in his mind in the days that follow: the sight of the animal heads in the gory courtyard. In his memory, the gentle glow of afternoon is falling over that heap of breath-taking ugliness, and what he sees are colours, tones, the subtlest transitions of light and shade … sepia and midnight blue, crimson turned almost black.”

To create beauty from the most extreme horror – that is the job that Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather took upon himself, when, following the First World War, he began to draw and paint. The former soldier left a series of sketchbooks and journals to his grandson when he died. And Hertmans used them as source material for his 2013 novel Oorlog en terpentijn (War and Turpentine).

Hertmans won Flanders’ Golden Owl Prize (now the Fintro Literature Prize) for best book, as well as the AKO Literature Prize for best Dutch-language novel. An English translation is itself a coup for a Flemish novel, but War and Turpentine made it all the way to this year’s longlist of nominations for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize.

And now the story is taking to the stage. “In my view, the true tragedy of the book lies in the fact that the 20th century is impossible to understand, and that to most people modern and contemporary art has turned out to be relentlessly rapid and iconoclastic,” says Jan Lauwers, who has adapted War and Turpentine as a theatre piece. “The hero of the story … is broken by the horrors of the 20th century and his own incomprehension of what beauty ought to be.”

Multimedia production

Lauwers’ Needcompany has produced three language versions of the play – Dutch, French and English. The Dutch version premieres this week in Antwerp – surtitled in English and French – while the English version will premiere in Malta next summer.

It’s daunting, though, adapting a best-seller like War and Turpentine. “Reducing 400 pages to 40, it’s as simple as that,” Lauwers jokes. “Trying to make a two-hour performance by mutilating a masterpiece.”

Stefan asked me not to bother him with the adaption. He told me I could do what I liked with it

- Playwright Jan Lauwers

But there’s one opinion he’s not concerned about: Hertmans’. “Stefan is a dear friend. I like working with and for friends,” says Lauwers. “And he asked me not to bother him with the adaption. He told me I could do what I liked with it, and that he would come and have a look sometime.”

That, he says, “was a mark of extreme confidence. It was a great encouragement.”

In order to separate the book and the play in people’s minds – to avoid the inevitable expectations that adaptations have so much trouble living up to – Lauwers uses techniques specific to the stage, creating a new experience.

Dutch composer Rombout Willems has written an original work for piano, cello and violin, which will be played live on stage, and Brussels artist Benoît Gob will create drawings that will be projected in real-time. And Lauwers has made the narrator of the story a woman, played by acclaimed actor Viviane De Muynck.

“She is not only one of the most captivating actresses in Europe – quite literally – but she’s also a good friend. It was with her in mind, and knowing that I could rely on her tremendous dramaturgical insight, that I ventured to set to work on this radical masterpiece.”

7-17 December, Bourlaschouwburg, Komedieplaats 18, Antwerp (in Dutch with English and French surtitles). Dates in Leuven and Brussels follow next year