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Stef Aerts directs 3D show JR at @hollandfestival: 'To go from 700 pages of real literature to a manageable stage text doesn't just happen.'

Listen here an atmospheric impression and the full interview with Stef Aerts.

Children have the ability to turn adults' worlds upside down. Eleven-year-old JR makes a big deal of it. On a school trip, he learns how the stock market works and then bends it to his will. In doing so, unhindered by a prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that contains our conscience, and which does not yet exist in children and adolescents. In 700 pages, filled with nothing but dialogues without character designations, describes the American writer William Gaddis in 1975 how catastrophic and far-reaching the consequences are when a child does the washing on the stock exchange. FC Bergman, a still relatively young Flemish theatre group, is now turning it into a four-hour theatrical spectacle.

JR is a book that is of itself something of a legend. According to experts, it is the book about the downfall of capitalism and - although written in the 1970s - points ahead to this century's stock market crisis and the rise of Donald Trump. But, world-famous as it is, it has also been deemed unreadable and has never been translated into Dutch. The work is mostly unknown here.

Ivo van Hove

JR first surfaced as a book about three years ago among the makers of FC Bergman. It was originally intended for a collaboration project with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, but artistic director Ivo van Hove eventually turned out to have other plans. However, Stef Aerts, one of the founders of FC Bergman and director of this production, immediately fell in love with the book, and asked if they could then make the play themselves. They were allowed to.

'Marie Vinck then joined us to work out and especially break down the dialogues, which is a feat.'

Because the book consists solely of dialogues?

'Except for a few transition texts, yes.'

Then I can imagine that as a theatre-maker you think: volia, a ready-made play.

'Yes, but we rarely, if ever, work with text. So we only thought somewhere in the beginning that we were being served ready-made, delicious dialogues. Which is true, because the dialogues are fantastic, even in the book already. But to go from 700 pages of real literature to a manageable stage text doesn't happen overnight.'

The dialogues are not so quick to edit?

'No, because they are very elaborate. We also had to cut them down heavily. Added to that: they had never been translated before. They were in German and French, though, so we were able to make use of that. We were helped by the university in Brussels. The interpreter-translation service did a kind of working translation for us. We had our hands full with that.'


'But what also makes it not super obvious is that the dialogues are written in colloquial language. So including all the stutters and hiccups. That makes it quite charming to read, but also quite tiring. It really is a work to get through. But it is thanks to that stammering and all those stop words that you recognise the characters, because in the book the characters are not indicated: there are only dashes. So you spend some time deciding who is saying what.'

So that was already a pagan task. But even after that, you don't make it easy on yourself. The set is a four-storey flat, the audience can look at it from four sides, there are two cameramen walking around. And you still don't see everything as a spectator.

jr, fc bergman. Photo: Kurt van der Elst

'The idea to work with film came pretty quickly because we found the dialogues so incredibly cinematic. They immediately reminded us of the 1970s films of Woody Allen, or even the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson. That a film was not made from that book before is just bizarre. But we wanted to continue the research we were doing earlier on film and theatre with this. So that we were going to use two cameras was very soon established. Working with one camera was not doable for this piece.'


'We didn't think of making it three-dimensional until later. It was because we were getting more and more buried in the chaos of that book, and the chaos that that book also wants to be. I soon found that with a normal stage setting, the entropy of the book could not be captured. So I was looking for something that would also force the audience to make choices, and which could also give the audience the feeling that they could not see everything and have all the information that was being communicated. After all, that is also the feeling you get when you read the book, especially for the first time.'

It is a risk you are taking, though.

'Whether that is a risk. I think it's also part of life. It's actually quite beautiful. Especially now, in these times where it's always about fomo, the Fear of Missing Out: you just can't have been everywhere. That is already very much present in that book. A world where all the information seems to be already available, but that you are mostly running after it all the time, because there are always people who know more than you and have more power. That is a very frustrating state of being, but also how the world works. That's precisely why I like what that tower brings to the public. That was the intention, and I think we are succeeding.'


JR, the 11-year-old boy from the title of the book and the show, is actually barely in the picture. Is the same in the book?

'In the book, he is the common thread, and basically the driver of everything that happens to the other characters, but he is not a psychological main character. He is mostly a concept. We never get to know him very much either. We find out little more about him than that he is a little genius. I like that. He is clearly the personification of capitalism, which is why he remains an elusive force. We have made him even more elusive in the performance than he is in the book: a kind of Citizen Kane or Great Gatsby: someone everyone is always looking for, throwing legends around.'

I had actually expected the play to be much more about financial constructions and malpractices. The introduction before the performance by a financial journalist was also only about the banks and the crisis and the dangers of another meltdown of the economy. Not a word about that in the play. You mainly deal with the characters and their personal lives.

jr, fc bergman, Photo: Kurt van der Elst

'That's because we are definitely not experts on the economy and the whole financial world. I do think it is a very interesting and fascinating world, but I know too little about it to put it into a performance. I never intended to make a statement about capitalism or the financial world. I'm just not versed enough for that.'

Professional jargon

'That is not the first reason we chose the book. It is mainly because of the rich and beautiful portrayal of the characters. It is also a special experience to struggle through a book that is bang on with jargon and financial constructions that you have to try to get a handle on as a reader, but fail to do so more than half the time. A very large part of the working time went into that as well. We also ended up simplifying those and making them more manageable. We did not want you as an audience to get frustrated because you would have to understand a lot of stock market jargon in addition to the complicated story. I hope we keep it complicated enough to give an idea of that wonderful language of money.'

You chose to leave it in the 1970s: landline phones, clothes, furnishings. Have you also thought about bringing it to now? After all, the parallels with now are very strong.

'We thought about that very briefly. In the design now, we looked for something timeless. We usually do that in our performances, but now we were faced with basic material that was very 1970s. We couldn't avoid that. Another problem was that in transposing it to this era, we lost our story. In the book, the drama all the time is caused by miscommunication, by phones being misconnected, people missing phones and therefore missing out on relationships. Letters not being opened all the time.'

Spirit of the book

'If you give those characters a mobile phone or e-mail then our story is done after ten minutes. Then there is no more drama. Or we would have had to rework everything, and I would have regretted that. Then the spirit of the book would have been lost. Whereas the performance now makes it clear that the virtual overload we experience now was actually very tangible in those days due to a very large amount of paper and cardboard and a huge amount of ringing phones.'

On a different note, how do you direct something like this?

'We started with a maquette of the set. We wrote the screenplay based on that maquette. That was precision work. it's in four columns, with all those parallel stories next to each other. It's mainly a matter of staying calm and tackling everything piece by piece. At first, we only dealt with the film. That's the story everyone gets to see. If that is not quite right, the end is lost. Once we got the film right, we then started writing the live footage on the maquette. In practice, that meant we had a lot of silly running back and forth at rehearsals. During the last week, we practised 'touring' a lot.'

With a show like this around, you also have big stands. There is room for 1,200 people. Never anxious that it won't be full?

'The advantage is that in Belgium we don't have so much trouble selling out the venue. Even before the premiere, everything was sold out. So the stress was enormous. How that goes in Amsterdam: it's hoping the stands get full.'


You guys are a pretty unique bunch.

jr, fc bergman Photo: Kurt van der Elst

When we started about 10 years ago, there were few groups that focused on large-scale visual theatre as we did. We are really children of our time, having grown up with visual culture. We like to use big gestures. That was already with our very first performances. Still without a budget. That included horses and lots of extras. With that, we set ourselves off a bit against the education we came from. The Conservatory is a fairly classical, but very good, text-oriented education. We also shaped our performances very much at school. And then we were frustrated because we were never judged on that. We were judged individually as actors, but not as an artist group. It is partly because of that that later, after our second year at the Conservatory, we started FC Bergman with performances without text and with a lot of form.'

Was school allowed to do that?

'We were absent very often, so we were not thanked. But we still have good relations with the school; some of us still teach there today. The woman who founded the school, Dora van der Groen, still has a great influence on our work even posthumously. Especially also on the visual aspect of the performances.'

Good to know Good to know
JR, a production by Toneelhuis / FC Bergman, in coproduction with NTGent, KVS and Olympique Dramatique, can be seen at the Holland Festival on 16, 17 and 18 June. Booking.

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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