‘Once upon a time there were people between birth and death. We are those people. We are here, and we have come together to remember and forget.’
Thus starts Funeral, the latest work by Flemish masters Ontroerend Goed to arrive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The multi-award-winning company have shocked, surprised and enchanted audiences for the past two decades with a series of radically different shows, and Funeral adds another notch to their belt of successes.
The show, which like all of the Big in Belgium programme is presented at Zoo Southside, takes the form of a secular rite of passage ceremony, with geranium-scented hand towels, candles, spirals of petal confetti, and a number of ‘celebrants’ guiding us and leading off with a succession of litanies and small rituals. There are echoes of Welfare State International’s Dead Good Guides, and Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy of marking key moments in life through ritual. These ideas, very current in contemporary counter-culture, have been taken and woven skilfully into an immersive theatrical experience. Much of the spoken text takes the form of lists. There’s a beautiful call and response on the markers of those absent: the smell of Elnett hairspray, her yellow jacket with the broken zip, his blue eyes shining through his spectacles, her stale cheese biscuits in that old tin. A box of possessions is unpacked and listed: a Polaroid camera, some glucose tablets, a toy diplodocus. Everything is an event, not a thing, we are told. That sneeze, that explosion, that relationship. Yes, but even that stone. It might take a long time, but one day it will be dust. We too are an ‘event’ on this earth. We are finite. All is finite.
The piece is written, designed, directed and enacted with a wonderful care and attention to detail. We are engaged in the process – walking the spiral, singing in Esperanto (a touch of genius), and adding the names of our own dearly departed into the mix. But we are always held. We are here, remembering and forgetting in communion.
Also part of the Big in Belgium programme, and also addressing matters of life and death – albeit in a very different way – is SKaGeN’s The Van Paemel Family, a highly inventive reworking of a classic Flemish play (by Cyriel Buysse). Set in 1903, in brings us a Belgium divided by class and language, depicting a fierce social struggle for workers’ rights played out through the personal struggles of the Van Paemels, an impoverished farming family exploited by the landed gentry they work for. There is an enormous cast of characters, but only one live actor – the brilliant Valentijn Dhaenens, seen previously in BigmoutH and SmallWar. A screen shaped like a simple drawing of a house brings us the family, a portrait projected onto that screen like a classic Flemish painting – father, mother, a number of adult children (one playing the accordion), and the odd stray cockerel – and Dhaenens starts the show in his first live incarnation as errant son Edward, who joins the socialist workers fighting in the streets, much to the shame of his father. He later embodies the French-speaking Baroness with equal skill – her disgust at the smell of the farm and the noise of the animals is brilliant. Finally he becomes Father, whose misplaced loyalty to his bosses, despair at his poverty, and anger at his children (who variously desert the army, flee to America, get jailed for joining the socialist uprising, and have a child out of wedlock when raped by the Baron’s son) is played out perfectly.
The relationship between live action and onscreen moving image is worked skilfully, and shifts in scale in the projected video are used to great effect to enhance the power dynamics of the characters. When Mother is seriously ill, she is an enormous figure on screen, her family sitting around the hills of her body like Lilliputians. When the soldiers arrive, their faces loom large, an intimidating presence.
In our own era of class struggles and dilemmas around fighting poverty and exploitation, it is good to be reminded of the struggles of the past, and to see the relevance to our life and times. Our current dilemmas might manifest in different ways, yet at their heart is the same issue. Too few own too much and exploit too many. SKaGeN show us also that political and socially conscious theatre doesn’t have to take a naturalist form – the physical and visual tricks of the trade of a ‘total theatre’ can be successfully used to tell difficult stories, as witnessed here.
This is also very much the case for JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, brought to Assembly Hall by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre, in collaboration with puppet masters Handspring Puppet Company. The show is written and directed by Lara Foot, with puppetry design and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring.
Coetzee’s 1983 novel brings us the story of Michael K, a poor ‘coloured’ man, born with a cleft lip, who has spent his childhood in institutions, and as an adult works as a gardener in Cape Town, also caring for his mother Anna, who works as a domestic servant. As the country descends into civil war and martial law is imposed, Michael’s mother becomes ill. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace, which she says was on a farm Prince Albert. Thus, the hero’s journey from Cape Town to countryside (and back again) begins…
The story is brought to life brilliantly in this production, with an ensemble of nine actors and actor-puppeteers moving effortlessly from verbal storytelling to puppet manipulation to physical action, swapping roles and demonstrating a high level of skill in all fields. Of course, the puppets are wonderful – this is Handspring, after all, famous for their creation of the War Horse puppets, and of the magnificent Little Amal, a giant puppet of a child refugee who has been walking the world for the past year or so. They are manipulated using the traditional three-person Bunraku inspired method, and there are many moments of playfulness where the puppeteers’ presence is acknowledged, such as a lovely sharing of food scene. The live action is augmented by a clever set, lighting and sound design, and a great use of projection, depicting the cityscapes and urban landscapes of South Africa that our hero passes through.
The horrors of Apartheid – the segregation, the abuse, the demands for permits to travel anywhere at all – is brought to us clearly, neither over-dramatised not shied away from, just presented for us to witness. The horrors of a war-torn South Africa in the 1960s and 70s – the abusive soldiers, the theft of what little savings a poor old woman might have, the mindless destruction of water pumps and crops, the work camps, the railroad chain-gangs – pile up, one after the other.
But we do not sink into a mire of despair. There is hope, and there is humour. The hope comes in Michael’s relationship with the land – these seeds will grow long after I am gone, muses our gardener-hero – the love of the land and its ability to regenerate being the key signifier of hope in this adaptation. The humour is there throughout. The building of a cart to carry Michael’s mother Anna across country, cobbled together from an old tin bath and bicycle wheels, is great – and Anna is a great comic character, squealing and moaning and teasing her only son. Even in the darkest moments, touches of humour alleviate the pain and the horror.
As is the case with Little Amal, the puppet Michael K arouses enormous feelings of empathy and love in the human spectator – puppets have this extraordinary ability. And as with SKAGEN’s The Van Paemel Family, here is a clear demonstration that naturalistic theatre is not the only, or even the first, choice for successfully bringing work with a strong political and social message to audiences.
All human life – and death, an intrinsic part of life – is here to behold in these three very different Edinburgh Fringe 2023 shows.
Featured image (top): Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K
Ontroerend Goed: Funeral, and SKaGeN/ Valentin Dhaenens: The Van Paemel Family were both seen at Zoo Southside on 8 August 2023, as part of the Big in Belgium programme.
Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K was seen at Assembly Hall, 7 August 2023.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs 4–28 August 2023. See www.edfringe.com