Focus Peter van Kraaij (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Jan 2003English

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I listen to the ticking of one or other divine clock, right through life’s thin wall of flesh with all its blood, vibration and sighs. I am close to the mysterious core of things just as one is sometimes close to a heart at night.

(Marguerite Yourcenar)


The work of the writer and director Peter van Kraaij (b. 1961) is highly refined and seeks the essence of things, while also being versatile and multidisciplinary. In a way very much his own, he combines his interest in image and film, music and sound, poetry, writings and their background, and actors and their craft, in a theatrical context solidly founded on reflection.


The Work

Peter van Kraaij trained as a film director. He graduated from the HRITCS (now RITS) in 1983 and immediately started work at the Akt-Vertikaal theatre company together with his fellow graduate Ivo van Hove, first as a dramaturge and later as a director (including pieces such as Mishima’s Boom uit de Tropen, 1986). Their creative paths have continued to cross ever since. When he met Josse De Pauw, Van Kraaij was brought into contact with the Kaaitheater. In an initial period he wrote and created two plays for the Kaaitheater together with De Pauw: Ward Comblez. He do the life in different voices (1989) and Het Kind van de Smid (1990), as well as the film Vinaya (1991).
The thread that connects these projects may well be ‘the search for oneself’: in Ward Comblez a man tries to redefine himself after his divorce through the medium of his travel stories; the Kind (child) and his half-brother Pomp each seek out their very different paths in a world filled with major historical changes; Vinaya is a story of initiation: a child in search of his maturity and answers about death and the cruelty of the world.
During the nineties, both in the Kaaitheater and outside it, Peter van Kraaij concentrated mainly on a meticulous staging of major twentieth-century plays that have one thing in common: they penetrate deep into the soul of the individual, but also situate him in his context, his era and his social existence: James Joyce’s Exiles (1993), in which an/the author stages his own life as an erotic fantasy; Maria Magdalena (1995), a monologue by Marguerite Yourcenar, in which a woman tries to stick together the fragments of her life to form a single whole; Bernard-Marie Koltès’ Dans la solitude des champs de coton (1996), a dialogue/struggle about desire; Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei (1997), a tragic confrontation between coquetry and the depth of love, between flirting with death and commitment in life; Heiner Müller’s Wolokolamsker Chaussee I-V (1998), a requiem for socialism, but above all a pressing picture of the scars that history makes in individuals’ souls, T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1999), about the crossroads in human lives and the differing choices that are made.
All these plays touch upon an abundance of topics: Van Kraaij clearly opts for complexity in the theatre repertoire, and for dealing with and trying to clarify this inevitable entanglement of the major and minor events of the world. In Sittings (2001) we re-encounter Van Kraaij the writer in addition to the director: Be in’me, the first part of Sittings, is a lyrical poetical narration of the life of the photographer Tina Modotti and at the same time a history of the world in the first half of the twentieth century. It is as if the epic, almost mythical breadth of Het Kind van de Smid had fused with the unpleasant political tale of Wolokolamsker Chaussee.
In the meantime, Van Kraaij was also writing film scenarios, including that for Thuisfront, Ivo van Hove’s first film; he was also co-scenarist on Meisje, the much-acclaimed film debut of Dorothée van den Berghe. Both Martin, the main character in Thuisfront, and Van den Berghe’s Meisje (girl) are at crucial points in their lives, when one of the many possible choices has to be made.
In addition, Van Kraaij has for many years been a lecturer both in the film department at St Luke’s College in Brussels and, more especially, in the theatre department at the Conservatory in Antwerp, where he helps young actors make artistic choices and define their role in life.

A human is someone who might have been someone else. The existing world lives at the expense of its possibilities. It is inhabited by unborn children.

(Paul de Wispelaere)


An abundance of themes

If there is one theme that repeatedly rises to the surface, it is that of ‘the potential person’: ‘the various possibilities that lie dormant in a person and whose blossoming depends on external circumstances’. Chance also helps determine which of the ‘unborn children’ we carry inside us will develop and which will not, but so do the historical circumstances and the individual choices the person makes. Why does the photographer Tina Modotti opt for political commitment and her teacher and lover Edward Weston for total internalisation in the refinement of his art? Why does the ‘Kind’ want to be at the heart of life while his half-brother Pomp lets himself be literally blinded by the sun so as to be able to live solely in his mind? Why, in The Cocktail Party, does Celia opt for a faith and devotion that lead her straight to death, while her friends Edward and Lavinia ultimately choose the path of a conventional marriage?
In addition to chance and individual choices, in Van Kraaij’s vision of things the life of man is probably determined and moulded most by historical and societal conditions. Is it possible for a father and son (as described in the fifth part of Wolokolamsker Chaussee), apart from any personal antagonism, to still understand each other when the first had experienced Hitler’s Germany and then became a convinced Communist in East Germany, while the second demonstrated against the Russian tanks that rolled into Prague in 1968 and sees so-called socialism slipping into a consumer mentality?
In Liebelei, can Christine, a middle-class girl, and the student Fritz, who comes from a higher class, really come together, when not only their respective attitudes to love separate them, but also the whole class-bound society and the suffocating mentality that accompanies it?Man’s freedom of choice is restricted by history; historical events leave traces, scars and traumas in individuals’ souls and on their bodies.

I have boundless admiration for poets: I think poetry is the ultimate art: the ability to formulate with concision and concentration, with the possibility of resonating associations, connotations and meanings; evoking ten things in a single line.

(Peter van Kraaij)


An abundance of means

In order to tell of such complex worlds, Peter van Kraaij uses all the means at his disposal. When he is directing, he literally immerses himself in the play and the world of its writer. Not only does he want to tie together all the narrative threads, but also the musicality of the language guides the way he stages it (cf. James Joyce, Bernard-Marie Koltès, T.S. Eliot and, soon, Thomas Bernhard’s The Hunting Party). This also explains the extremely meticulous work he puts into the colour of every word, together with his chosen translators, who include Geert Lernout and Patricia de Martelaere. The music he introduces into his plays is an integral part of his concept and appears recently to have been gaining importance (cf. his collaboration with such musicians as Jan Kuijken on Peter Handke’s De Overstroming (2002) and George Van Dam on The Hunting Party (2003)). With a director like Van Kraaij, who thinks in film terms, the images are naturally extremely expressive. The stage space, on which he often works with Bart Van Overberghe, is defined at a very early stage and is as it were distanced from the world of the script.
In very recent projects like Sittings and Josse De Pauw and Tom Jansen’s SS (2002), for which he designed the visual material, both pre-recorded and live video images slip into the story being acted on stage: they allow the spectator to watch events from several angles at the same time. Several artistic disciplines are combined in the staging of Van Kraaij’s plays. But they do not merge into a single entity; the individual character of each art form is respected; the ordering principle is a parallel rather than a hierarchical arrangement.
But in this complexity of musical and verbal, visual and auditive expression, the main focus of Van Kraaij’s work is nevertheless on the living actor. In his approach, he follows a course together with the actors he has chosen. He opts for actors who are prepared to explore during rehearsals and to continue to do so later on stage, emancipated theatre people who have a feeling for language, who can ‘live’ on stage, and who, like poets, can evoke several meanings at the same time. Van Kraaij coaches his actors towards a way of acting in which narration and being, and monologue and dialogue alternate. He also sees characters as ‘unborn’ children: possibilities the actors carry within them and which they may be able to develop, by searching and trying, in the course of their work.


(translation Gregory Ball)