For a show that’s called The Act of Dying, it all begins lightly. The theatre collective de polen – in which Bosse Provoost, Kobie Chielens, Geert Belpaeme and Lieselotte De Keyzer join forces – leaves the opening scene to the visuals. On the floor lies a wooden frame, strung at the corners to a system above the stage by ropes that the performers begin to manipulate. One corner rises, then another, and then the frame floats and swings across the stage as if it were a performer. At the same time, it evokes associations with what you might call ‘thresholds’: a door, window, but also the rim of a well. Soon, an actor appears from behind a diagonal green curtain on the other side of the stage. Taking a position in the centre, she starts performing a series of ‘dying scenes’. She pretends that a sword has cleaved her in two, that she is eating her own eyeballs or having a heart attack. And each time she ‘dies’, she stands back up in the same no-nonsense manner in which she had died. We see neither drama nor slapstick, but rather, the incredibly thin, exciting line between the two. After this intense solo, two men join the female figure and the three of them go through the motions of pretending to die grotesquely again.
The caricatural acting style and the grotesque movements and facial expressions of the performers are a clear reference to animated cartoons (already a source of inspiration for Provoost and Chielens’ 2015 production, Moore Bacon!) but they also are reminiscent of bloodbaths of the Kill Bill variety. Like cartoon characters, they kick the bucket and spring back to life as if nothing had happened, only to do it all over again. We can laugh along with death here – the essential element being that the characters don’t seem to be aware of what is happening to them. They just ‘act’. But then the tempo gradually grows slower, the movements stiller, the laughter fades to a grin, to an attentive observation and finally to a deconstruction of the act of dying. The female figure manipulates her two companions, dragging them across stage and finally pulling them behind the green curtain and out of sight. The images created here, although still light and playful, are more layered. For instance, one figure lies beneath another in order to manipulate the other’s arms and hands in a position that is a cross between a strange embrace, a futile attempt at extending a hand, and a literal piling of bodies.
After the female figure drags the two men behind the curtain for the last time, she turns into a zombie, arms stretched out before her. The wooden frame comes to life as a marionette again and starts doing a jagged, swaying dance to the sound of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. The slow, melancholy music, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – often associated with the suffering and misery in World War II, and more particularly with the Holocaust – provides a new context for the first part of the show. The last person quickly exits and the wooden frame carries on with a subtle solo. Indeed, with music like that you can do nothing more, and once it starts it’s almost impossible not to let it play through to the end. De Polen accordingly takes the strong decision to let that happen, resulting in a beautiful, moving scene that allows us time for contemplation.
The act of dying – we certainly saw that here, but is this production actually about dying? And if so, what does it have to say about that? The comic first part, with its specific style of acting and the performativity of the wooden frame, suggests that it could be more of a search for an equivalence of performativity between people and things: if people seem a little bit dead and things a little bit alive, they indeed can be almost each other’s equal on stage. At first sight, it’s difficult to make a connection between the daily reality of dying, at times occurring in a more horrific context than at other times, and the dying in this production.
However: in 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing sent shockwaves through the documentary-viewing public. Oppenheimer went to Indonesia to interview leaders of the death squads that butchered almost a million so-called ‘Communists’ in 1965. He convinced these men to take him to the places where the slaughtering occurred and re-enact the events. The impassive, sometimes giggly manner in which they do this makes the cruelty of the massacres even greater.
A lot changes when you view the production through this lens. Provoost & Co. chose to exchange the perspective of the perpetrators for that of the victims, however. When the three figures come on stage, they are already long dead. Seen in that perspective, their lightness has a bitter aftertaste. They act out their deaths again and again for us, like a testimony that doesn’t get expressed; but if they were to speak to us directly, it would go something like this: “Look, this is how we die, time and again. Today we might be citizens of Mosul, Yemen, Palestine and Baghdad, but we are also those who were decimated in genocides past; and we are the people who live in fortunate circumstances for whom death is a repressed unknown, a heart attack the only rehearsal for the end.” When Gorecki’s music takes over, it evokes sorrow for what we are seeing now – the absence of human beings. And this makes the decision to not bring the figures back on stage all the more strong: after all, they are ‘gone’. The question remains whether you immediately get all of this during the show – and if that’s even necessary. When the show keeps repeating itself in your head days later, that’s just as strong.
De Polen aim for a gradual disintegration, and the tone only really changes with the music at the end, although perhaps by then it’s too late. While this second part is emotionally moving, and the transition from the first part is smooth in terms of form, there is static in the connection in terms of content. The grotesque performance does not quite manage to turn into a kind of real cruelty that can cut through the lightness. Similarly, there is a moment in The Act of Killing when reality intervenes with one of the perpetrators; for a moment during the re-enactment of his own barbarity, he breaks down. Only then does the viewer realize that this is ‘real’ – necessary in a world where violence has become mediatized to the point that it has become unreal. This is a detail, however. The viewing pleasure and the beauty of the production are already enough; although, The Act of Dying might have been even richer if the substantive depth had been brought more to the fore somehow.