Reservoir: Jan Decorte (ENG)

Kaaitheater bulletin Sep 2007English

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In this section we look into an artist’s ‘reservoir’: the library, the video collection, the archives and the experiences on which they draw for their creative work. This season, for the Kaaitheater’s 30th anniversary, we shall be asking artists who already have a long career behind them and whose work we have frequently presented.
In 1981 the author, actor and director Jan Decorte launched his version of Friedrich Hebbel’s Maria Magdalena at the third Kaaitheater Festival. The play had a great impact on the Flemish theatre of the late 20th century.


After studying at the Ritcs I actually stopped being a ‘cultural person’. I no longer read any books, or watch any films... At that time there was in fact already enough in my mind to keep me going.
The one author who has inspired me the most is of course Shakespeare, and especially his Macbeth and King Lear. Those two plays are literally ‘awful’ and that also makes them awfully important. I was 19 when I first read Macbeth. The language, the poetry, the way such powerful images arise out of those accumulated layers of language: I was immediately transported; I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with it, and so with theatre too. Macbeth is the play that comes closest to me personally, and where I always end up: l’homme nommé le sang, le loup et le diable. King Lear contains everything, the whole world; it is one great tautology, one great summary. Like that phrase of Wittgenstein’s: ‘the world is everything that happens’. You can take that with you for the rest of your life; it touches on the essence. ‘The essence’ is a phrase that fits me very well: I am constantly in search of it. That is also why I try to reinvent theatre in every play. Again and again.
This fascination with Shakespeare may also have something to do with the era he lived in. Or the time when Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas. Theatre and opera were still in their infancy: naive, primitive, rudimentary. It was the start of something. The medium had not yet developed very far; the scenery consisted of set pieces and the rest was left to the audience’s imagination.
Of course you find the same primitive state of the medium among the Greeks: they did not even have a theatre. Their ‘performance space’ was more like an arena, an open location. In the Greek tragedies too everything was in everything, the essence. Every theme in the world made its appearance. The poet Herwig Hensen, who taught me dramaturgy at the Ritcs, told us about the theory that there are actually only about 36 recurring dramatic situations or themes in the whole of the world’s theatre literature. You find them all among the Greeks: death, violence, war, revenge, minor (individual) and major betrayal, and so on. The whole spectrum can be found in those Greek plays. You read them in the stories about Medea, Antigone, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Orestes, Oedipus, Aeneas, etc.
Compared to Shakespeare and the Greeks, someone like Goethe is really a bureaucrat. His first poems are potent: I included them in the programme for Torquato Tasso. He only wrote that play in 1789, but in fact after those first poems he didn’t develop any further. He kept on repeating himself, while Shakespeare is new every time.
After all, for me it’s primarily about the poetry, the language, images in words. That’s why I often end up with Heiner Müller. The way his Hamletmachine is attached to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, stacked up on top of it. I am currently doing a piece with short writings by Müller with Sigrid (Vinks) and Sara (De Bosschere).

I got to know Ibsen through that series in De Wereldbibliotheek, those very fine translations by Mrs J. Clant Van Der Mijll-Piepers. I have staged Hedda Gabler several times: in a film version and in my theatre adaptation Op een avond in. I actually wanted to do a lot more of Ibsen’s plays, such as An Enemy of the People or The Master Builder or Little Eyolf. Ibsen is one of the few playwrights who did bring new themes to the stage.
And of course there is Georg Büchner. In het moeras is a rewriting of Woyzeck and Cirque Danton of Danton’s Death. When you die at the age of twenty-three, your whole oeuvre naturally has that fascination, that power, that fullness that characterises the youthful work of all great writers.
You can see it in Brecht too: his first three plays – Baal, Im Dickicht der Städte and Trommeln in der Nacht – are fantastic, but his later work for theatre, plays like Galileo Galilei and Mutter Courage, don’t interest me. From Die Massnahme onwards his poetry was constricted by a political straitjacket.
Beckett is very dear to me, especially Endgame. I have often intended to do something with his plays, but for one reason or another it never quite happened.
There are several major fault-lines in the continuity of my work. One of them was the decision, just before the first night of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 1983, not to stage that play at all but to replace it by Scènes/Sprookjes, a project completed in a very short time. It wasn’t just a transition from a play structured as a whole to one that consisted of extracts – pieces from Perrault’s fairytales, from Roland Barthes work, etc. – but also in a certain sense from a more wordy to a more visual form of theatre. But the main reason for that decision was my desire to get closer to my actors. I had had enough of the role of tyrannical director determining what had to be done. I wanted to give much more freedom not only to my actors but to the audience too. From then on I started ‘rewriting’ or ‘reinventing’ those plays by Shakespeare, Büchner, Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht and the Greeks in my own language.

My entire oeuvre is in fact one long attempt to get ever closer to the ‘essence’. And that also means closer to ‘abstraction’. That’s why dance has played an increasingly important part in my plays since Bêt Noir (based on Sophocles’ Oedipus). The desire to become involved with opera and music, as in Dido and Aeneas, also springs from this need for greater abstraction and more essence. Coming closer to the ultimate simplicity. Finding that one great tautology. Reinventing theatre over and over again, not only in the way I write, but also on stage: in the acting, the movement, the dancing and the singing. For example, by singing that song of Arno’s in dieu& les esprits vivants myself, it feels to me like Arno is on stage with me. That has always been one of the essential elements of theatre, from the Greeks to Heiner Müller: making the absent or dead present.
My existence itself is one big tautology: my life and my work are one. There is no distinction between the two levels. You shouldn’t divide things up or structure them, as everything structures itself. Things thought up in advance lose their potency. By ‘leaving things open’, I want to give both the performers and the spectators the greatest possible freedom. That’s why I have always got my depressions out of my system by writing them down: the results include dieu& les esprits vivants and & and Burgaudine. Back to the origins again and again, to that burning point in your head, like Hölderlin, who towards the end of his life sat on a chair and only uttered a few words in Latin and Greek. He was one of the very greatest, precisely because of that language, which is the beginning of everything.