The Elements of Jan Lauwers' Shakespeare Adaptations

Theaterschrift Feb 1997English
Theaterschrift 11: The return of the classics?

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The textual material the artist Jan Lauwers has until now used in his theatre work has been extremely varied. It has included texts he wrote himself, collages of novels and stories and adaptations of plays by William Shakespeare: all mixed up together, they form the basis on which he stages his plays. In keeping with the theme of this journal, I would like to concentrate on the nature of the adaptation and interpretation of the Shakespeare plays.
A few short fragments from 'Antony and Cleopatra' already appeared in Needcompany's first play 'Need to know' (1987). In 1990 Jan Lauwers directed 'Julius Caesar' in Dutch, and in 1992 followed 'Antonius und Kleopatra' in German. The last in the series up to now is 'Needcompany's Macbeth' (1996), an adaptation in Dutch. I worked on both 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antonius und Kleopatra' as the dramaturge. I have also followed 'Needcompany's Macbeth' from somewhat closer than the average theatre-goer.
These three Shakespeare plays were not presented in their complete original versions. There was an adaptation of the material, chiefly in response to the need to perform them with far fewer actors than Shakespeare required, seven instead of thirty, for example. But these are not the only changes made to the material. The adaptations and interpretations also bring different accents to light, which at the same time provide clues as to the sort of confrontation that occurred between these classic plays and the life and thinking of a contemporary director. The purpose of this article is to describe concretely and directly the changes and shifts in accent made to Shakespeare's texts.


The presence of the woman

In Jan Lauwers' adaptation of 'Julius Caesar' the first word is spoken by Brutus' wife Portia, in a sequence which in the original comes from act two, scene one. 1 The 'almost absent woman' in this political 'male play' is here literally and figuratively brought to the front of the stage. The basis for this move is Jan Lauwers' fundamental admiration for the strength that women radiate: this admiration makes an immediate correction to the social disadvantage still suffered by women. One of the important emotions we are faced with as spectators is Portia's concern regarding Brutus' strange behaviour. Behaviour which can be explained by the tension involved in the preparation for Caesar's assassination - of which Portia knows nothing. In the rest of Shakespeare's story about the conspiracy that leads to Caesar's death and to the civil war that results from it, Portia's presence is hardly noticed: after Caesar she is the first to die in the course of the story. In Jan Lauwers' version, Portia remains on the stage, together with the actor who plays Caesar, until the end of the play. By means of their actions, these two dead characters provide an ironic commentary on the conceited behaviour of those still living.
Lauwers' version of 'Antonius und Kleopatra' begins with a monologue by Enobarbus, in which he describes Cleopatra's irresistible loveliness. This text was taken from act two, scene two. Once more, by placing this material at the beginning, as a prologue, the woman, Cleopatra, is literally brought to the front of the stage. She also remains the central figure in the rest of the play. Almost the entire play is set in the long strip of the forestage. The great black space behind it (Cleopatra's mausoleum) is entered only by women. Cleopatra, aided by her maids Charmian and Iras, repeats her dying monologue there no less than three times. By allowing time and space to ebb away at that moment, the death of Cleopatra becomes the play's dominant chord. It is Jan Lauwers' reply to the question, "but why 'Antonius und Kleopatra'?" - "Because Cleopatra is a woman, a beautiful woman, who dies. And with that I have said everything."
Just like 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antonius und Kleopatra', Macbeth is set mainly in a male world, and yet in Lady Macbeth Shakespeare created one of his most intriguing characters. In his version, Jan Lauwers decided to have a woman play the part of Macbeth, the actress Viviane De Muynck. Lauwers tells us: "I see this decision as a nice symbol of the ambiguity between men and women that Shakespeare employed in 'Macbeth'. In 'Antonius und Kleopatra', a man and a woman stand apart from each other, while in 'Macbeth' they are one and the same". In his book 'Shakespeare Our Contemporary' Jan Kott wrote: "Here, in this union, which remained childless, or where the children had died, the woman is the man. She desires him to commit the murder, as a confirmation of his virility, as a straightforward act of love." Lady Macbeth says, "When you durst do it, then you were a man". The woman, who in 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antonius und Kleopatra' had to be brought to the fore by means of changes in the text, is here in 'Needcompany's Macbeth' automatically at the front, as a result of giving the title part to Viviane De Muynck. She is no longer subordinate, not a pawn of fate, but an active person conscious of her / his deeds.


The function of the narrator

In 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antonius und Kleopatra' Jan Lauwers introduces a narrator. In both plays the narrators indicate the acts and scenes and provide short explanations about the time, setting and action, so that the spectator is able to cover the gaps left by characters who have been written out and scenes that have been omitted. They sometimes speak the lines of characters who have been left out.
In 'Julius Caesar' the narrator is a woman, whose text includes lines·from Caesar's wife Calpurnia, and who towards the end tries to get a better grasp of the story. After Caesar's death the play is turned upside down, and we find ourselves in the more chaotically staged civil war (acts four and five). At this stage the narrator tries to enforce some control and to raise her voice above the noise and chaos. At the end she even holds the sword onto which Brutus collapses at his suicide.
In 'Antonius und Kleopatra' the function of narrator is divided between two characters. The first, Charmian, Cleopatra's maid and confidante, not only performs the function of narrator, but at the same time also plays her own part. The second, Ritsaert ten Cate, the director of the former Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam, who took part in the playas a special guest, played himself and a character built up from various fragments, who is somewhere between a narrator, a messenger, a soothsayer and a deus ex machina. He predicts Antony's downfall, advises Pompey to seize power, and warns Antony not to fight at sea. He performs various functions as a messenger, and in the end also brings Cleopatra the asp with which she commits suicide.
The introduction of these narrators made both plays more accessible to the spectators. In spite of the fairly drastic adaptation the audience is addressed very directly and has no trouble at all in following the story.
In 'Needcompany's Macbeth' the narrative function as originally provided was left out at the last moment. This meant a move away from the almost epic form of the two previous Shakespeare pieces. The active character of the dramatic action once more comes to the fore.


Images of death

In the very first plays Jan Lauwers staged (when his company was called the Epigonenteater), it was usually scenic images that formed the basis of his productions. From 'Julius Caesar' text took a greater share in his work, but alongside this language element there was still a counter-language of images.
In the three Shakespeare plays Lauwers chose there is a lot of murder and dying, and 'images' of death naturally come to the fore. In 1990, Jan Lauwers said: "You cannot show murder and suicide on stage, nor love. The impossibility of showing things, and yet still showing them, is a contradiction that makes theatre so interesting. In order to do that you try to get closer to abstractions ... " In 'Julius Caesar', atthe moment of his murder, Caesar (played by Mil Seghers) is standing at the front of the stage facing the audience. The conspirators, behind him, leave the stage one by one. Caesar stands there for more than three minutes, motionless and in complete silence, and the audience understands or fills in what is happening for itself. In act four, the dead Caesar drags a set of rocking horses onto the stage. He then sits on the one in the middle and the many others who die in acts four and five gather around him on the other horses. This is a gentle and cheerful afterlife where friend and foe meet once more.
In 'Antonius und Kleopatra' war is waged more than once. When, in act three, scene seven, Antony decides to attack Octavius Caesar at sea, war breaks out on the water. In Jan Lauwers' version this is a moment of great quiet and peace, just like the murder of Caesar in 'Julius Caesar'. A black and white film of the steady, tranquil waves rolling up and down a beach is projected onto a screen behind the seated characters; it is just a suggestion, no more. It is once again left to the audience's imagination to fill in the action of the sea battle.
The individual deaths of various characters in 'Antonius und Kleopatra' is represented very simply by their leaving the stage. In Antony's attempted suicide this leads to a moment of humour: at first he only wounds himself. He leaves the stage, but returns after a few moments and says: "I have done my work ill, friends". He only leaves the stage for good at the moment when Shakespeare instructs that he should die in Cleopatra's arms. Cleopatra postpones her own death, which soon follows, by repeating her dying monologue three times (as if she does not wish to take leave of life).
Whereas the image used for Duncan's death (he is the first to die in 'Macbeth') can be compared to the peaceful, serene depictions of death in 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antonius und Kleopatra' (the sound appears to go: one still sees Duncan speaking but one no longer hears him), the more Macbeth murders his way through the story, the more gruesome become the symbols of this bloodbath. This culminates in the image of a young woman (Carlotta Sagna) drinking blood from a large dish and then allowing it to run out of her mouth over her body. Although one knows this blood is not real, one is in the end still horrified by the aggression in the image of this blood-soaked character, and this is where theatre does indeed succeed in refocusing on the meaning of blood and murder. However, Jan Lauwers' biggest change regarding the meaning of death is to be found in Macbeth's closing monologue. In Needcompany's version Macbeth is not murdered, but brings an end to his 'sound and fury' with the sentence "I will not yield". In other words there will be no end to the spiral of horror. The murder will continue, we are powerless against violence, and there is no way out.



1990: 'Julius Caesar'. 1996: 'Needcompany's Macbeth'. In the course of six years, Lauwers' view of social reality has evolved, and this can be seen in his plays.
In 1990, Lauwers himself said of 'Julius Caesar': "I see it as a play about friendship. About power too of course, but mainly about friendship. What you see in the performance is the attitude of a group of people towards the story of 'Julius Caesar', not the story being put into perspective." As was often the case in the first years of his career as a dramatist, Jan Lauwers tried, in this production, to tell two stories, that by Shakespeare and that of the group acting the play. Despite the seriousness of the story, 'Julius Caesar' was a cheerful performance which elicited a lot of laughter and whose closing image, of the whole group united on the rocking horses, radiated a friendly complicity.
In 'Antonius und Kleopatra', despite the detours and obstacles, the two leading characters in the end decide, at the moment they are already facing death, to stick to each other and not to power. This is also their downfall, but it still means that the force of the lust for power which steamrolls over everything is tempered to a certain degree. In addition to love, intense friendship is also present here, that of Enobarbus for Antony. When in the end Enobarbus, referring to Antony, speaks the line: "I will seek some way to leave him" (these are the last words of the act in both Shakespeare's play and Lauwers' version), the story swings round, the tide turns and it becomes sure that the leading characters are doomed. In his turn, Enobarbus will die of sorrow because he has betrayed both friendship and loyalty.
In 1996 Jan Lauwers selected 'Macbeth', undoubtedly Shakespeare's darkest play. There is no love left here, no friendship (Macbeth has his friend Banquo murdered without a qualm; women and children are also slaughtered), all that remains here is the unceasingly murderous spiral of the desire for power. Laughter has died in everyone. The horrors that have in the meantime taken place in the world (the Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Chechnya etc., to name a few) probably made it impossible for Jan Lauwers to choose anything else.


Mental and physical worlds

There are other threads running through Jan Lauwers' three Shakespeare pieces which are able to bring some clarity to the motives behind his interpretation and adaptation of these plays:
• the handling of language: In 'Julius Caesar', apart from the adaptation itself, the language was 'rewritten with the audience in mind' (all the impeding inversions were disposed off). The language was simplified to a sort of everyday spoken language. 'Antonius und Kleopatra' was performed in German, in the classic translation by Schlegel, Tieck, Baudissin and Delius, which automatically brought about a slowing of speech. In 'Needcompany's Macbeth', in order to keep the level of complexity high, all the complicated linguistic twists have been retained. This piece was later performed in English too, on which occasion the richness of Shakespeare's language was of course preserved.
• the treatment of 'the mysterious': In 'Julius Caesar', Caesar's wife Calpurnia, as well as the conspirator Cassius and even Brutus, refer to all kinds of alarming portents. In 'Antonius und Kleopatra', most of this sort of prediction, made by fortune-tellers, had already been removed. In 'Needcompany's Macbeth', we hardly see the witches anymore. There are occasional references to their lines, but this is more as a sort of signpost to be able to keep track of the story. In 'Needcompany's Macbeth' no one still believes in higher powers, everything is dominated by human despair, by the grim reality of murder and by the unstemmable longing for power. In this context, even superstition loses all significance.

In these three versions of Shakespeare we see the most important aspects of the director Jan Lauwers' mental and physical worlds:
• his fascination for death and power is present everywhere (cf the 'Snakesong Trilogy'). The essence of Lauwers' updating of Shakespeare lies in the way he depicts death. In his contemporary reading of Shakespeare he does not opt for the straightforward route to topicality (e.g. Hamlet in jeans or Richard III with a swastika on his chest), but for a way of providing a meaning that is connected to the needs of the day. The contribution he has made to the iconography of death shows an understanding of the present tasks of the theatre.
• his respect for women and their strength can be seen in the handling of the female characters and in the casting of his actors. In his 'Snakesong Trilogy', the first and second parts of which were created between 'Antonius und Kleopatra' and 'Needcompany's Macbeth', women are also the central figures. The theme of eroticism is less of a presence in the Shakespeare adaptations, except perhaps in 'Antonius und Kleopatra'. It is significant that in his first production with Needcompany, 'Need to know', Lauwers was already using fragments from this Shakespeare play precisely to express this theme of his, eroticism and its link with power.

An evolution in his mental world can also be seen throughout the three Shakespeare adaptations:
• he no longer wants to make it easy for his audiences. This is why he chose in 'Needcompany's Macbeth' to leave the complexity of Shakespeare's language intact. This is the reason behind his choice not to tell stories anymore, but mainly to confront the spectator with the individuality of his images.
• with 'Needcompany's Macbeth' forming the provisional close of the series, his view of the world has evolved from relative friendliness to absolute ghastliness. The result is a reality without love, without friendship, without faith or superstition, and also without hope. What's more, the power of humour, which puts things into perspective, is also gradually disappearing.
• one constant in his work remains the desire to 'control time on stage'. Decelerating movements are everywhere, the calm of Caesar's death and the closing scene of 'Julius Caesar', the images of the sea and Cleopatra's thrice-repeated closing monologue in 'Antonius und Kleopatra'. The little flame that Mil Seghers lets creep slowly over the table in 'Needcompany's Macbeth' and the exasperatingly slowness with which Macbeth speaks his final monologue, etc. Of this, Jan Lauwers said: "We have to stop for a while, look for silent moments, calm down. One of the functions of art is to call a halt to the tempo of life's great forward dash, and to ask, 'What do we do now? Where are we now?'"

So there is a thematic kinship between Lauwers' Shakespeare productions and his other theatre work. After all, power and eroticism, and especially their mutual entanglement, are present in just about all his plays, in the 'Snakesong Trilogy' too, where, in addition to his own texts, he uses material by Oscar Wilde, Comte de Lautreamont and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Other plays will follow these, and among them may be new Shakespeares. There is no pre-planned course to be divined in the work of Jan Lauwers, such as a development from the use of his own texts towards the use of classical material, or vice versa. The choice of the verbal material depends on the expressive needs of the moment. As Jan Lauwers said in his interview with Klaus Reichert, the Shakespeare plays are like moments of calm in his career, during which the theatre professional steadily does his work and the artist looks on and/or manifests himself in the powerful images that help draw attention to the text.