Looking over productions you have made, we don't find any other adaptations from novels. Why did you choose to work on Stefan Hertmans' War and Turpentine?
Jan Lauwers: Stefan Hertmans is first of all a great poet, a tremendous essayist and philosopher - the political commentary he gives is always strongly founded - and on top of this he is also an excellent novelist. War and Turpentine, which tells the story about his grandfather, reminded me of my own grandfather and uncle, who were also Sunday painters traumatised by the First World War. My grandfather was a good copyist, just like the hero of the book. He lived through the war and then he disappeared. Nobody in my family knows how he died. I felt the need to get to know what happened during the First World War. Then I read the novel by Hertmans, and it turned out that the story was already written. I was fascinated by the book, because the story it expresses is very close to my family. It links to the productions Isabella's Room and The Blind Poet that I've made.
When I spoke with Stefan Hertmans about my interest to stage his book, he agreed immediately, although there were other competitors on the horizon. I explained to him that my adaptation could give a different point of view on his story. But still, he gave me carte blanche. On one hand, it was liberating; on the other, I encountered difficulties. It's not my cup of tea to stage a book. I had Viviane De Muynck in my mind. She is now in her 70s. The experience of elder actors makes good actors even better when they are older. Somehow, they are freer.
Within the adaptation I took a female point of view on a book that is written about men. Besides that, if you adapt a book of almost 400 pages and the final script consists of 40 pages, you eliminate 9 out of 10 pages. On top of that, I added an extra character: the Angel of History, played by Grace Ellen Barkey. A character that doesn't exist in the book, but is inspired by the book. I had the need to have someone like Grace on stage, who is a total free spirit, to create a new layer. We've worked together for over 30 years, but I never directed her. It's physically and mentally impossible, and that's inspires me.
You also knew from the beginning you wanted to have musicians on stage?
JL: War and Turpentine is a renowned book and accesses a large public. Stefan Hertmans, who has written extreme disruptive novels, wrote a particularly linear novel and he enlarged his audience from a thousand readers to a hundred thousand readers. It's some kind of homage to Stefan, an homage to the book, which may reach a bigger audience. With Isabella's Room our audience enlarged, partly because of the music. War and Turpentine is a book about a man who thinks the 20th century is a mistake, who thinks that all good art was already made before. Music, references to music, takes an important place in the book. I asked Rombout Willems, who is a contemporary composer, to compose music for a classical trio. I asked him to return to the 19th century whilst composing. He felt intrigued by that.
At the presentation at Toneelhuis in Antwerp, the emotional reaction of the audience was very strong.
JL: It was. I didn't know the emotions on that book were so intense. Hertmans touched something.
Grace Ellen Barkey: It is a story about a hero, a real hero story. Jan changed the point of view, but still, it stays a heroic story.
You said this story is related to your grandfather's life. Isabella's Room was related to your father, The Blind Poet is related to Grace's life. Was this personal connection also present in your previous work, or did it start with Isabella's Room?
JL: It was always there, but not as present. In fact, it's totally insignificant that Isabella's Room is based on my family story, just as it's not important that the book War and Turpentine is about a real grandfather. When the book was published, there were critics that doubted the existence of the protagonist and his story. I can only say that if it's an invention, it's even more interesting.
With The Blind Poet we experienced something similar. The performance was well received, but there were some people commenting: 'I'm not interested in personal life of the performers'. If the only thing you see as an audience is the question whether the story is real or not, then I totally failed as an artist. I hope what you see is more than the private life of our performers. When Grace shouts 'Grace Ellen Barkey, Grace Ellen Barkey' at the beginning of the performance, one has to look at the bigger picture. If she would yell 'I am John Cassavetes, John Cassavetes', it wouldn't make sense. At a certain moment, it is no longer important that Grace is Grace Ellen Barkey. But at the same time, it's not important to know that Benoît Gob's mother was a prostitute. The totality is about form and content.
But for you, when you choose the theme of the new production, is there a reason, a kind of motivation?
JL: For me, it came out of the fact that I wanted to make portraits. My source of inspiration is the green portrait by Raphael at Villa Borghese in Rome. You see this fantastic portrait, but you don't know who this person is. At the moment when Raphael was painting it, everybody knew the guy, but today we don't recognize him anymore, and it does not diminish the quality of the painting. This proves that painting is about painting. About the quality of form, and the form in balance with the content.
If I make a portrait of Grace or Benoît, I have to think like that. In preparation of The Blind Poet, I interviewed all the performers, and asked them if it would be a problem to tell their personal background on stage. Benoît said 'No problem, I'm an actor, I'll play Benoît'. He takes a distance from it. For Grace, at a certain moment, it became no longer important if she is or plays Grace Ellen Barkey, or not.
GEB: I think it does. It really makes a difference that you know people by name. 'You are Abdullah'. And you have that given name. When I say my name on stage during so many minutes, I always think of the importance of stating your identity.
JL: For me, The Blind Poet is the most emotional moment in my career, because Grace had almost died just before of a serious illness. But it's not important that the public knows my emotional state. They may feel something profound because of that. But that's open. It's the same if you return to War and Turpentine, whether the hero of the book existed or not, this cannot be the issue.
It's not the issue, but I think it influences the reception. You mentioned Villa Borghese. When I visited it, there was a guide and other visitors were following him. People were completely bored with his statements, up to the portrait of Raphael's mistress. The guide told that story, and the attention of the group changed completely. People listened carefully, with curiosity. I think that the suggestion that the story can be true changes its reception, makes people watch, read, listen to it in a different way. So the emotional reactions to War and Turpentine can seem to me related to the first-person narrative and the fact that it is a true story.
JL: It's totally right what you say, but as an artist, that cannot be your aim.
GEB: When it only remains within a personal story, then it is not enough.
JL: The fact that War and Turpentine is a book that touches lots of people, maybe this is because we believe it's true, but I hope it's also because it's written well. The sentences are beautiful. In essence, Hertmans is a writer of sentences, not a writer of stories. Here, he wrote a story with these beautiful sentences. The balance is fantastic in the book.
Brussels, 27 January 2018