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Living on with indigestible guilt to each other's ruined existence: National Theatre plays Hugo Claus' Friday

Georges Vermeersch comes home early from prison, where he was serving a sentence for incest with his daughter Christiane. In the meantime, his wife Jeanne has had a child by younger neighbour Erik. So how to proceed?

Casper Vandeputte directed an intense, haunting version of Hugo Claus' play Friday at the Nationale Toneel. Lead actors Stefan de Walle and Ariane Schluter shine in over two hours of harrowing awkwardness.

Suddenly Georges is back in the room, sombre, brooding. He comes out of prison a broken man. He has been treated badly there, but he is also ashamed and feels cheated by the whole world: his wife, the neighbour who was a friend of his, and everyone who testified against him in the trial, daughter dearest included. At home, there are suddenly a baby and a lover. Wine is drunk instead of gin and beer. And his beautiful garden is neglected.

Stefan de Walle beautifully interprets Georges' fluctuating emotions. His angry outbursts echo his traumatic experiences in prison, but at the same time prison has become his world. The jadedness and distrust disappear from his eyes when he talks about the prison warden or his cellmate.

Jeanne, who works as a hairdresser, also feels cheated as well as guilty. Her husband cheated on her, with their own daughter of all people. Since then, the ladies of the village have not wanted to be hairdressed by her. But while Georges was suffering in prison, she was in Erik's arms. And then there is the confusion upon his return home: who does she really want to be with? Does she fall back into the old rituals with Georges, or is her life with Erik the new reality?

Ariane Schluter is sublime in depicting Jeanne's brave attempt-against-the-despair-in, her wavering between self-pity and guilt. When the installment-bought TV breaks, she has nowhere to flee from confrontation. Her body language is touching and moving.

Stefan de Walle and Sallie Harmsen in Friday, photo Kurt van der Elst

Erik (greasy mat, leather jekkie over bare bark) is a nice supporting character from Vincent van der Valk. As Jeanne's macho boyfriend, he now faces her husband again, his old friend. With his nonchalance, he cannot overcome the realisation that he will eventually lose everything.

And then there is daughter Christiane. She plays, largely without appearing, throughout the play. She is hated by mother Jeanne, who cracks down on her whorish escapades in the city, and secretly still loved by father Georges. Only once, in a presumably dreamed scene, does she actually appear on stage.

Sallie Harmsen portrays Christine with verve as a fickle jazzy sex bomb and Georges finds that he still cannot resist her temptations. Still, one might wonder why Hugo Claus physically brought Christiane to the stage. She is already pregnant enough in the thoughts and feelings of Jeanne and Georges. Her own motives were not really made clear by the author.

Friday is about living through the consequences of your actions. Erik reminds Georges of a thoughtless statement he made in the pub earlier: that he would be fine if Jeanne preferred to do it with someone else. It is as painful for Jeanne as it is for Georges. The scene is indicative of the play, in which everyone is rock hard for his thoughtless misdeeds.

The National Theatre shows superbly how difficult it is to try and make something of it anyway. The characters are even in their debt to each other's ruined lives, but oh, what an unbearable debt to have to live with.

More information.

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Frans van Hilten

I am a freelance cultural journalist. Because I think an independent cultural voice is important, I enjoy writing for this platform.View Author posts

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