Bosch in the 21st century
Hieronymus Bosch is one of the most mysterious painters in the history of art in the Low Countries. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, LOD is bringing together the composer Vasco Mendonça, writer Dimitri Verhulst and director Kris Verdonck to make a musical-theatre production based on Bosch’s work. His paintings are well known for their peculiar creatures in bizarre settings. The often grim scenes such as in the Garden of Heavenly Delights and The Last Judgement combine a harsh judgement on sin with the daily life of Bosch’s era. As a strict Christian at the dawn of humanism, he saw illicit sexual behaviour, greed, gluttony, stupidity, violence and vanity all around him, and so he decided hell was on earth. The characters in his paintings are impaled, half-devoured, run naked between fires and find themselves in a world where birds are as big as people and trees have eyes. Yet these figures are not suffering – is this a symptom of their ignorance or of their choice to live like this?
In BOSCH BEACH, the idea of hell on earth is taken as the starting point for a look at today’s world through Bosch’s eyes. What would hell look like today? Perhaps it would be like the British science fiction author J.G. Ballard so often described it: a world of the petty bourgeoisie lying around a swimming pool, wallowing in the inertia of the consumer society, with a resident orchestra playing in the background. In Bosch’s day, there was the notion of the ‘False Paradise’. People live in what at first sight appears to be ‘the best of all possible worlds’, while in another light this false paradise is not much different from hell on earth. Where is today’s false paradise, our hell on earth? Where do morality and responsibility make an appeal to mankind? Verdonck opts for a beach in Southern Europe, a beautiful place, where tourists sunbathe and swim in azure seas with white beaches. Sunbathing on the splendid beaches at the Mediterranean while refugees are washed ashore, that could be the 21st century’s hell on earth.
BOSCH BEACH plays with the ambiguity of this place and the impossible issues of guilt that it brings with it. Faced with the stream of refugees, not only on Lampedusa, but now also in Calais, Kos, Macedonia, and so on, there is a powerful moral appeal. Apart from the question of whether we should take care of these people, the question of the responsibility for the overall situation is even more complex. Is it not we, in the rich West, who are responsible for the poverty and wars in Africa? Do we not maintain our lifestyle at the expense of standards of living and stability on other continents? And if this is the case, can and should we feel responsible as individuals? And how should we then act as a consequence?
Doubts amidst the congas and cocktails
The men and the woman in BOSCH BEACH are not interested in this gruesome presence. In Verhulst’s libretto, the moral decline that fascinated Bosch is expressed in seemingly innocent lapses. They are ordinary people on holiday, living in the cocoon symbolised by the Club Med holiday resorts. They spend time bullshitting in the vernacular typical of Verhulst; macho talk about women, sex and money. Their biggest problem is the Heineken, which is not their favourite beer. They seduce each other, send postcards with the familiar clichés, and drink cocktails until the early hours. A hangover provides the occasion for a minor existential crisis with no further consequences. The response lies in congas and more cocktails.
In the course of the performance, the scene lapses from the superficial to a true hell on earth. This is where Bosch’s hallucinatory, surreal images make their appearance. The characters seem briefly to have doubts about their lifestyle, but in the end laugh it all off or wallow in self-pity when they see another human’s suffering about which they can do nothing. Like Bosch, they do not suffer, but perhaps that is precisely the problem. They are accompanied by the staff of hell/the hotel: three creatures who could have come straight from a work by Bosch. They are used to this place and do their work there.
At the same time, we may ask ourselves whether we are actually able to feel guilty at all about problems in a globalised world. The scale of the challenges and the complexity of the causes and effects makes any action extremely difficult. The three tourists in BOSCH BEACH certainly do not manage to achieve the psychological and emotional depth necessary to truly confront reality. Since, moreover, we in the West are appealed to above all as consumers, and increasingly accept the neoliberal logic as neutral or essential, all morality seems to have been lost. In J.G. Ballard’s words: ‘We have fewer and fewer moral decisions to make, whether driving our cars or raising our children, treating our employees and ex-wives. In fact, one could live today without making any moral decisions at all …”
The vernacular language of the libretto contrasts sharply with the medium and technical skills of the opera voice. This contrast is deliberately cultivated, also to focus on the medium of opera itself, which is not unjustly well known for its bourgeois history and audience.
The composer Vasco Mendonça will relate his work to several aspects of Bosch’s oeuvre and the actual situation described in the libretto. From Bosch he takes the whims, the hallucinations and the darkness of hell and incorporates them into his composition. The instrumental intermezzos, which speak more from the position of the corpses in the body bags, take inspiration from the current refugee issue and the contrast with the luxurious but amoral situation of the characters on stage. Mendonça will write evocative and atmospheric, often even ominous music. He sees this as a catalyst for the story. He incorporates other, experimental instruments that transform the sound of the ensemble. This additional sound can be interpreted as the protagonists’ doubts and as a blemish on beauty.
A bandstand serves as a bar and disco, but can also be transformed by means of inflatable elements into a characteristically Bosch-like hallucinatory architecture. The singers take up a position amongst body bags, which they can also use as loungers. Three figures in mascot suits wander around on stage, doing their ‘work’. This involves cleaning and rearranging the body bags and entertaining the guests. The characters wear skin suits and swimming costumes. This is the basic set-up around which the rest of the stage design evolves.
With the aid of the lighting design and the creation of a number of backdrops, it will be possible to evoke a splendid sunset, a city skyline or a combination of the two, thereby forming the setting of a ‘burning city’ or searing heat. This too makes play of the ambiguity between paradise and hell, and between Ballard and Bosch. In this way, BOSCH BEACH also brings two worlds together in its stage design: the false paradise of the resorts (also a hell on earth, according to J.G. Ballard) and Bosch’s hell on earth, where fire, torture, naked and distorted bodies, living objects and imaginary constructions (the bandstand) fill the stage. The course of events in the stage design is a step-by-step transition from one world to another.
Kristof Van Baarle, December 2015