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Saint Genet in #HF17: Be afraid of Americans. Very afraid. But go watch.

You have punk. You have performance art. Best Gaap, because often little remains of that ferocious wildness that dominated the European scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Marina Abramovic we now see mainly as that silent lady on that chair opposite her long-lost lover. We have forgotten that she once offered her audience razors to mistreat her. Which then happened. We no longer look up from a pierced cheek and Vivienne Westwood is in the most expensive shopping streets with her shops. Also in Vienna.

I was in Vienna to go and see 'Promised Ends' by the American company Saint Genet. The performance is in Amsterdam on 10, 11 and 12 June. The announcements don't lie. The creative genius behind this company is a still fairly young American, adorned with the name Derek Ryan Claude Mitchell. At least three European first names, so plenty of European roots.


Mitchell has been mentioned in the same breath as Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic. Now this happens more often in the world of festival marketing, but after seeing his two-hour performance in Halle G of the Vienna Museums Quarter, I am convinced. Derek Ryan Claude Mitchell is a worthy heir to these greats of 20th-century innovative and disturbing art. Indeed, that he manages to unite the extremes is an extra special achievement: Robert Wilson's mathematical stillness and Abramovic's self-destructiveness bordering on madness converge in Promised Ends and then grow into something you won't forget lightly.

In the show, we see beforehand how Mitchell sucks himself a piece in the collar while being sucked dry by real leeches. A gory image, not intended for the tar-hearted among us, but it sticks. As the performance begins, he staggers to the back, leaving the floor to dancers, and a man in a wheelchair. What follows is a war of attrition, a physical struggle, passionate poetry and madly driving music. followed by an ending that leaves you in despair.

Real leeches

Saint Genet makes disturbing theatre art. That much is clear. The next morning I speak to him, and first of all ask him if everything was real. He shows me the wounds left by the leeches. He is clearly not quite sober yet. On his chest is a purple-blue-green spot left by one of his actions on stage.

'Everything is real,' he sounds decided. 'So I take huge risks. But that's also what I want to bring back into theatre. That you come because you will witness something that is necessary for your life. You are not going to be entertained. It's not about whether you like it or don't like it. It's about commitment to society. That is deadly serious. For me, at least. Politics is deadly seriousness, theatre is deadly seriousness.'


Now that's all well and good if you have yourself on the line. He did so in the two previous projects in Vienna, with which Promised Ends forms a trilogy. Eight dancers also participate in this performance. How far do they go? Far, it turns out. One of the members, a Vietnamese young woman, is stripped and continually humiliated by the dancers in the performance. A large man in a wheelchair is lifted out of it and placed in the set, making him even more helpless than he already is. They turn out to be amateurs, friends of the maker.

Mitchell: 'There are two members of the company, Basso (the disabled one) and Lili (the Vietnamese one), who are obscenely devoted to me. They have no experience as performers. They are terrified and incredibly devoted at the same time.' That seems like reality theatre, but Mitchell explains that we shouldn't see it that way: 'There is so much out there in that room that is real art. A latex floor that clearly shows that it took us a month to make it. There is a light artwork, projections, there are professional dancers, there is all this composed music. They all came in and they really rehearsed very disciplined. And then it turns out that their job is to guide these people through the piece.'

Too drunk and too weak

That does not make it fake, Mitchell explains: 'When I talk to my performers, I say: I don't care about your feelings, I'm not interested in your individual emotions. I'm only interested in a holistic understanding of this project. Sometimes things come to you, sometimes they don't, but you as a performer must always be ready to guide me through the show, because I will be too drunk and too weak to make it to the end. I need you, you have to be stronger than me. You have to make sure Lili is safe. She is the one I love most deeply, so she has to be safe.'

It doesn't stop there for Mitchell. 'The dancers are also hurting each other. They're drunk, they're high on nitrous oxide. So there is a reason why we start formally. They dance for a good 15 minutes before they start doing really dangerous things. People will start to see this and think: are they insured? Anyone who starts with this company knows that you have to be extremely disciplined. Getting people to freak out on stage is perhaps the most boring, trivial thing to do. But creating a holistic environment that feels like pure chaos, like really dangerous, that requires quite a bit of mastery. So I don't want to take anything away from the mastery of the artists in that room either.'


In all its violence, Promised Ends comes across as very American. Mitchell admits this wholeheartedly: 'I tell everyone that the work is very American. It is dominant, it is lavish, it seems very powerful, but in fact it is decaying and dying. It's hyper violent and aggressive, but it's also - I don't want to appear vain, but I can't describe it any other way - it's super beautiful when you walk in, but the more you take in of it, the uglier it gets. Mean, corrupt, and insensitive to the needs of the public. This is all very much America. It doesn't care if it destroys itself, it doesn't care if it hurts other people, and it lives without any morality. That's all pretty much America.'

But let us not see it as anti-Trump theatre, he hastens to say visibly: 'You would have had to have been blind in the years before this not to know that something like Trump was coming. What did you think in 2001 when we started an illegal war in Iraq? Trump is not new, it's not a new phenomenon. It is much scarier because it is laid on so thickly: we are now horribly nationalistic and openly racist again, but that is not new. Anyone who claims that is deliberately naive. What about the genocide of the 150 million original inhabitants of this continent?'

Pushed into the water

He makes it concrete: 'Lili is participating in the programme, she is not a professional performer. She is a refugee. She was literally on a raft pushed into the water, which happened to reach the Philippines. That's her story. Do you think America has nothing to do with that? Then you are a road warrior. With the Syrian refugee crisis right now? Again, since it is a dominant culture, can we maintain that we, as the US did not help cause that problem? Then you are really being deliberately naive.'

'So when someone says, "Well, Trump", I say, "ok, but what about Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan?" I'm not even angry about that, I just want people to start saying things that are true. I mean: I love the US. It's my birthplace. It's my job to be a citizen there and make the country better, but we live in the Roman Empire and you have to say that out loud, too. And we live in the Roman empire, not during Augustus, in the glory years, but during Caligula, when the decline set in.'

Good to know
Promised Ends plays at the Holland Festival on 10 11 and 12 June. More info.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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