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Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, The Deer House, Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, The Deer House,
photo Maarten Vanden Abeele
A MATRIARCH STANDS OVER HER DEAD DAUGHTER’S PALE, SUPINE BODY. SHE HAS AWKWARDLY DRESSED HER LONG-LIMBED ADULT-CHILD, WEEPING THROUGH HER FRUSTRATION, CHOKED BY MATERNAL PAIN BUT DETERMINED TO CONTINUE, TO REMAIN A CONSTANT THAT THE REST OF HER FAMILY CAN RELY ON. HER GRIEF-STRICKEN FACE IS FRAMED BY TWO OVERSIZED PIXIE EARS, HER BATWING-SLEEVES TRAIL FRINGES OF MOUSEY HAIR. BUT DESPITE THIS GNOMISH INCONGRUENCE, SHE COMMANDS RESPECT.

All eyes are drawn to her, a bold figure in the sparse white landscape of the stage. Beyond the platform where her daughter lies, on the outskirts of the colourless expanse, large rubber stags stand pallidly in line and the small ivory torsos of deer are heaped haphazardly under rows of huge antlers hanging on the far wall. Family members take their time at the corpse’s side, her long blonde hair falling over them onto the bare podium as they hold her.

The mother—the inimitable Viviane de Muynck—moves downstage towards us. No longer crying, her canorous voice is strong and unstrained as she addresses us directly. For now she is no longer the mother of the girl, but Viviane the performer, the storyteller recounting the back story to what we have just witnessed. She speaks about a Europe that has become a wilderness, and a family seeking refuge from the atrocities of war in an abandoned station, deep in the countryside. This is the deer house, a sanctuary from which they sell antlers to survive. As her musical words paint landscapes in the imagination, her round eyes settle on every one of us. Her gaze captures me and I could be sitting by a fire listening to fairytales. She is mother to all of us.

But something goes wrong. The mesmerising flow of her speech stalls and sputters. She’s lost her way, she struggles to finish a word, she can’t push it out of her mouth. Her eyes panic, glaze and fix on a distant spot. The family crowds in as she crumples. A jumble of languages rises from the bodies huddled round her. We crane to catch a glimpse of her, shocked into tenseness as the represented world invades its own narration.

For tonight we all seem to be part of this family, as Jan Lauwers and Needcompany tell us about community and death and the blurry boundaries between theatre and the world, where the real and the simulated merge and overlap, and intimate human conflicts are a microcosm of encompassing global occurrences. The performance centres on an actual event: the death of dancer Tijen Lawton’s brother, a war photographer killed in Kosovo while Lawton was on tour with the company.

At the start of the show we see the company’s dressing room reconstructed: the performers cavort around semi-naked, cheekily attention-seeking as they exchange jeans and tracksuits for rustic elfin tunics and large impish ears. Although playful, they’re equally absorbed in darker topics, stories of violence and death. They read extracts from a diary discovered by Lawton in Pristina when she identified her brother’s body, and from this a new story arises.

A war photographer is forced to choose between shooting a mother or her child to save the other. He kills the woman, and journeys with the body to the rural home of her relatives. They must decide whether he should die for his crime, and then whether his killer should also die. The Needcompany family assume the roles of this folkloric clan with a Brechtian-style self-awareness, presenting a narrative that dips in and out of its own frame, as the characters —and the corpses—step in and out of the action, attempting to alter or prevent the story’s progression.

The Deer House is the third part of Jan Lauwers and Needcompany’s Sad Face/Happy Face trilogy, following on from Isabella’s Room (2004) and The Lobster Shop (2006). While the first two parts focused on the past and the future, this third instalment looks to the present. And the company’s frenetic, unpredictable presentation aptly reflects its fleeting ephemerality. Dance, music, performance meld into a new, self-reflexive form, embedding skilfully manipulated reference to earlier mythologies, including the mourning rituals of Greek tragedy. The multilingual musician-performers also mix and match French, English and Dutch, the surtitles flashing as ideas fire simultaneously, tightly packing in ambiguous images to constantly widen the breadth of associations.

Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, The Deer House Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, The Deer House
photo Maarten Vanden Abeele
The show careers ahead of us and moments we can’t catch are swept up in the commotion; sometimes it’s a struggle that fragments our concentration, but then we are reined back in, particularly when characters attempt to take control of their present, trying out alternative possibilities. Their stories are a way to stall death: perhaps this bag is full of stones instead of a child’s body; perhaps the photographer doesn’t have to die. But ‘no-one writes their own story’ and the present inexorably progresses, even though we can’t see how after such momentous and tragic events. Just as the matriarch picks herself up and carries on with the tale, life itself continues after bereavement. Routine and order are broken, but trepidation is eased away as a new structure is settled on. Stories rise from death, providing ways to continue.

So at the end of this epic journey, hope grows from despair. Perhaps, as the characters suggest, grief is “the only thing that keeps all cultures from falling to bits”, providing “the driving force for the new.” The performers sing out a final image of community in this fantastical, ridiculous world: “We are a small people with a big heart, we love each other and it’s a real art.” Spectres of the chorus from an ancient Greek tragedy, perhaps.


Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, The Deer House, text, direction, set design Jan Lauwers, music Hans Petter Dahl, Maarten Seghers (except “Song for The Deer House”, Jan Lauwers), performers Grace Ellen Barkey, Anneke Bonnema, Hans Petter Dahl, Viviane De Muynck, Misha Downey, Julien Faure, Yumiko Funaya, Benoît Gob, Tijen Lawton, Maarten Seghers, Inge Van Bruystegem, choreography the company, costumes Lot Lemm, lighting Ken Hioco, Koen Raes, sound design Dré Schneider; Kaaitheater, Brussels, Sept 25-27

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 8

© Eleanor Hadley Kershaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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