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Theatre of The World (1): Design by Quay Brothers tastes like more #hf16

Carré's history and programming make it an odd duck in the Holland Festival pie. Programmed for next year are a boxing memorial, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Ali B. The sawdust for dressage horses never seems very far away. It doesn't seem the most obvious place for a postmodern opera, or rather a grotesque in nine scenes. But now it is here: Theatre of the World. An event so big that we have two reviews and an interview to it.

Helen Westerik discusses the design of this opera.

Composer Louis Andriessen, director Pierre Audi and librettist Helmut Krausser put on a major international co-production in a setting by the Quay twins. Reason to see how these brothers, made famous by their stop motion animations, translate their work to such a large scale. As just one part of a large and complex whole, how does their work and identity stand?

The Quays have been making their very own films in their unique cinematic language for decades. Their - most short - films are set in microcosms that are dark and mysterious, but which you would nevertheless like to spend a week in to really penetrate their spirit world.

Andriessen wanted to work with them because he saw in them a contemporary counterpart of Athanasius Kircher, the Renaissance man, charlatan, inventor and all-rounder on which the opera is based. And in turn, the brothers were unquestionably inspired by Kircher's visual work. A match made in heaven?

Theatre of the world - ©Ruth Walz
Theatre of the world - ©Ruth Walz

In a work with a fragmentary libretto in several languages, the design acts as a guiding element. The costumes too, especially the exoskeleton corsets of the three witches, give a dramatic charge that the libretto sometimes lacks. It makes clear where we are sometimes in danger of dangling for a moment; it gives coherence.

In Florence von Gerkan's costume design, the costumes for 'the boy' are particularly striking. He is not given a name anywhere. His button-encrusted bomber jacket has "Boy" on the back, in a later scene it becomes something like Robin (from Batman), to end with devil's horns. This gives the role of that boy, beautifully played by Lindsay Kesselman, extra eloquence. The publisher has a cape made of a flexible kind of rubber. Part Zorro, part SM basement, it illustrates the strange relationship he has with Kircher and gives him a viper-like appearance.


A postmodern opera, with postmodern costumes, sometimes grotesque, sometimes historical, sometimes like a batman shirt, almost from Waterloo Square, make a décor for that.

In Carré, at least, the Quay Brothers find a beautiful theatre to work in. The arena has been turned into a playing field reminiscent of the Jewish cemetery in Prague because of the few shot and crooked graves: an atmosphere both poetic and melancholic. At its centre is a curved pillar, a kind of vortex stretching to the sky. Later it turns out to be the Tower of Babel.

The light on arrival at the venue is austere black and white, as is the décor in the arena. It is so much ponderous and larger than the work in the Quays' films that I could not suppress a slight disappointment. So would it really die at this scale?

But then, thankfully, there are the background projections. Carré's stage opening is used almost entirely for those projections on semi-transparent canvas. Sometimes illustrative, sometimes commentary, sometimes autonomous: the story of the opera and Kircher's life are shown in shadow and stop-motion animations. The grotesque from the subtitle emerges very clearly here: little devils out of boxes paint a mysterious, playful and dark picture at the same time.

Spectacular is the appearance of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican mystic with whom Kircher has corresponded. On stage, behind the first curtain, she slides past on a back-and-forth elevation, like a life-size reliquary: she has an illuminated frame with a portrait on her chest. It gives a surreal image of religion as form, as kitsch, but also elevated and delineated. A beautiful image for the only woman in Kircher's life. As the portrait frame is illuminated, her heart seems to be on fire. For him?


Gradually, more colour, and thus more eloquence, also enters the arena. The drabness goes away, giving the stage image more depth and making it a little less disturbing how neat everything is. There are no dents in the set pieces, there is no dust. Everything looks freshly painted. But if there is one thing attractive about the Quay brothers' work, it is that every loose screw, every pile of dust and every half-bandaged doll holds promise. You rediscover the beauty of squeaky hinges and iron sawdust. And that just doesn't translate to a grand scale.

Fortunately, they more than make up for this with the animations and the wonderful invention of the moving stage for Sor Juana. Especially the animations that herald the show's finale and Kircher's life are wonderful.

I heard some grumbling around me about the libretto. But we can agree on the design. It tastes like more.

Good to know

For tickets and more information click here.




Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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