TALK is the next step in the research that encompasses the whole of Kris Verdonck’s oeuvre. This time, the point of departure for TALK was the further exploration of a notion which, to use big words, we might define as ‘theatrical functionality’.
The starting point in ACTOR #1 (2010) was the question ‘can a robot recite a text onstage?’ In TALK the question might be ‘how can an actor – imitating his mechanical brother, the robot – speak his lines as functionally as possible on stage?’ People who work with their hands, like plasterers asked to plaster a wall, do their work as functionally as possible: their movements are well thought out, the breaks in their work are necessary to allow the wall to dry, the lamp shining over the surface is to reveal any unevenness, and so on. This functionality leads to ‘authenticity’: everything done is ‘genuine’, honest and without ulterior motive.
But what then is functionalacting? How can an actor match the functionality of a robot? Does ‘acting/playing’ come to an end if the ‘pretending’ is eliminated? In recent theatrical practice, there has been greater pressure on the ‘pretending’ element. One can quote plenty of examples which show that acting without emotional, aesthetic or any other sort of ‘coloration’ actually strengthens communication between actor and audience, and makes them affect each other more. This means leaving out everything that’s in the way or might distract. Putting the actor onstage without all sorts of extraneous images, information, value judgements, associations and so on that attach themselves to him like burrs to a coat. Also, for example, without his prior history, his career, his previous productions, etc., and thus opting for the ‘anonymous actor’.
In K, a Society (2010) Kris Verdonck showed images of a Kafkaesque society: a society like a closed bastion, fulfilling the cast-iron logic of a nightmare. There are similar images in every society that currently exists. Rwandan society has virtually all of them and to an extreme degree: it even exceeds the picture of society George Orwell outlined in 1984. The most inhuman aspects of both capitalism and communism are united at its heart. The ‘double-speak’ and ‘double-think’ of Orwell’s characters, the lies and the pretence, in other words the ‘pretending’, forms the basis of everyday life there. Beneath lies a dreadful pain, and sorrow, and frustration, and rage, and despondency...
The actor in TALK who tells the story of this society and its recent history does so anonymously. Does he do this out of fear or as a precaution? Does his communication involve any danger? To him? Or to others? Does he want to make this statement in spite of this, in the hope of provoking a reaction from his audience? What is said here is in fact ‘widely known’. It is based on a great many verified sources that anyone can consult and on what one can see, hear and experience when one visits that country. Yet this information does not elicit any reaction. So it is ‘known’ and at the same time ‘not known’, or rather, the knowledge does not penetrate to that core inside us where words are converted into deeds, when we ourselves move into action. How do you tell this sort of story? How can you tell this sort of story in a way that will elicit a reaction?
And can a medium like theatre play a part in this? The research carried out in TALK also raises the question of how a political analysis in words can function on stage. The author Joris Verhaegen was asked to write a journalistic piece containing as many verifiable figures as possible, a piece that comes as close as possible to unattainable objectivity, by bringing together as many – inevitably subjective – voices as possible so that it gives rise to a new quality. Bringing the final result of this assignment to the stage in full would result in a marathon performance. It would probably make the listener give up on it and thus would not stir up any reaction at all, except perhaps boredom and frustration. So we edited and edited some more and then some, and this means that many of the subtleties of the discourse have gone. What the anonymous actor tells the audience is just the tip of the iceberg. But the complete berg does exist: it can be sensed beneath the words and, after the show, the spectator can take the whole story home with him in printed form.
If the medium of theatre can only function by editing so much out, is it actually worthwhile opting for it as a form? And what is it actually able to offer in return? In addition to the words there are also images, but they too are reduced to their essence, to a minimum. There is the image of the plasterers plastering the wall, letting it dry and then smoothing it off again. There is the anonymous actor sitting in an armchair and talking. And there is one major image in the script: the investigation of Rwandan society is done on the basis of a single all-encompassing metaphor, that of the ‘Business Plan’.
This ‘Business Plan’ shows that the Rwandan state has two major sources of income: the damages for the genocide paid by the international community and the proceeds from plundering the wealth of the Congo, its neighbouring state; but the latter is deposited in a separate account. This story probably arouses a certain indignation. But, in this story, isn’t it rather its cynicism that offends us, its shameless insensitivity? After all, we can’t be that insensitive. And while we are considering our own feelings, we once again avoid the reality which really is so cynical…
We do not want to or are not able to conceive of it. We cannot imagine ‘extreme poverty’. We cannot imagine that for a family the death of a goat is a greater loss than the death of one of the eight children. Nor the hundreds of thousands of men slaughtered with machetes, the raped women, the battered babies, and so on.
Text: Marianne Van Kerkhoven