07 Sep 2021
Sat 14 Sep 2019
Toneelgroep Oostpool’s production of People, Places & Things was selected for the Flemish TheaterFestival but couldn’t perform in Ghent. It’s Flanders’ loss as it opens up a door to a completely different approach to acting and making theatre.
There’s a (not totally unfair) stereotype in the UK that “European” theatre directors’ main intention with a playtext is to rip it up, make the actors strip naked for some inexplicable reason and turn it into a new piece beyond recognition. It’s perhaps indicative of the fact that British theatre is often referred to as “writer’s theatre” and in mainland Europe it’s “director’s theatre”. However Marcus Azzini’s production of People, Places, and Things feels like the perfect synthesis of these two theatre approaches and we all have a lot to learn from it.
The play follows Emma, a struggling actor who goes to rehab for her addiction problems, and in the process it reveals the fundamental sickness at the heart of individualistic neoliberal society. It’s a searing portrait of trying to live life to the fullest and fill the void in a hopelessly shallow world. When it premiered in London, Denise Gough was universally praised for her raw depiction of Emma and Hannah Hoekstra delivers an equally explosive performance in the show by Toneelgroep Oostpool. A shapeshifting powerhouse, she’s proof that good acting transcends language barriers. Under Azzini’s direction her numerous crises become utterly real and believable; tearing at the paper wall behind her with the name LUCY emblazoned on it; throughout the performance she remains in her sparkly outfit from Emma’s performance as Nina in The Seagull. Is she Nina, Emma, Lucy, or all of them? MacMillan has written a truly incredible character for actresses to delve into but it’s striking that naturalistic, emotionally raw performances like this aren’t more common on Flemish stages.
The predominant acting style in Flanders seems to be detached and cerebral, in which performers simply perform as themselves performing a text rather than embodying a character. It’s undoubtedly got its merits, it leads to some profound and mind-boggling theatrical experiences but it sometimes feels as if they’re trying to transcend or deny their own emotions. At heart, humans are basically slightly-smarter-than-average apes. We may be intelligent but we’re still emotional creatures. We need to laugh and scream and feel as well as contemplate all the questions of existence. To pretend otherwise is a delusion.
Azzini’s production displays the strengths of Britain’s naturalistic, cinematic writing style with “European” aesthetic experimentation. Many mainland European theatre-makers could learn from British writers, who bring a real rigour to their writing, ensuring that it’s engaging to watch whilst not getting self-indulgent. UK directing students should be sent to mainland Europe where they’re expected to be artists in their own right rather than simply serving the text.
I have a theory that Flemish children’s theatre is so good because it combines the prevailing culture of experimentation with the absolute necessity to entertain the audience, otherwise they’ll switch off completely. People, Places & Things does something similar for adult’s theatre. It’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s funny, it’s honest, and it’s smart.