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A tense conversation about anxiety and sex early Sunday morning: The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety @HollandFestival

It feels like a variation on a scene from a farce. On stage: Birmingham REP's public relations officer, a journalist flown in from the Netherlands for the premiere and the director's assistant rushed in. Location: an upmarket hotel in the heart of Birmingham. Time: Sunday morning a little after ten o'clock. The subject: sex and the all-encompassing concept of anxiety. Go!

The big absentee is director Calixto Bieixto, whose remarkable theatrical collage The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety had its world premiere the previous evening.


When I sit opposite Lucía Fernández, it is clear that we are both uncomfortable, more than a little 'anxious'. I ask my first questions, actually meant for Bieixto. I ask if, as he stated in another interview, this is his most personal performance.

Routinely, Fernández softens his statement: 'All our performances are personal. This is indeed a performance that Calixto had been working on for more than four years, but that doesn't make it more or less personal.'

Sex sells?

I ask about the title, noting that while sex plays a role in the performance, it plays much less of a role than the title suggests. 'That's right, originally we wanted the show to be The Anatomy of Melancholy named after the seventeenth-century text by Robert Burton from which we selected excerpts. We were a bit persuaded to choose a more challenging title.'

'For ticket sales?", I tentatively suggest, but I don't get an unequivocal answer. I ask a few more questions from my list, but it is clear: this is not working.

'This is a bit awkward,' I mutter, shoving away my more explicit questions and deciding to just talk about what we saw and heard last night. It soon results in perhaps a more engaging conversation than with the director himself. Not only about the performance, but also about the rehearsal process.

Wondrous amalgam

The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety is an amalgam, miraculous on paper, of the Heath String Quartet and four actors who have more than earned their spurs in theatre and far beyond. Parts from Ligeti's second quartet and Beethoven's eleventh are punctuated by monologues covering all kinds of unrest. From innocently mundane to life-defining. From neurotic tics to deep wounds that cannot be healed. All cause stress.

A set is seemingly absent. On the bare playing surface at the start, haphazardly placed chairs and lecterns. Chairs and desks that later turn out to be much more than that. The enormous wall of stacked chairs that functions as the back wall is anything but static. One moment a non-interfering presence, but a moment later literally a wall coming at you. Dark, menacing and, after the show's only moment of terror, chaotic. And, thanks to clever lighting, an apocalyptic landscape in which musicians and actors move.

Tragic and comic

Each actor embodies a different aspect of turmoil. The desperate side is shown by Cathy Tyson. In an impressive and heartbreaking monologue, she recounts the unfortunate death of a child. Sexual frustrations and traumas are expressed by Mairead McKinley, using texts by Houellebecq. Miltos Yerolemou is more detached, more philosophical in excerpts from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

That seems leaden, but the fascinating performance is indeed also incredibly funny, although the laugh here is that of the farmer with a toothache.

'Exactly!" laughs Fernández. 'Of course, it deals with heavy topics, real traumas, but also imagined ones. Nick Harris knows how to convey that wonderfully. What begins as a recognisable phobia becomes, through magnification and accumulation of one fear after another, grotesque. And then comes the huge enumeration of so-called therapies and chosen self-medication.'

Concentration and interaction

Unusually, especially for Heath Quartet members, Ligeti and Beethoven's string quartets are not played at a stretch.

A lot of work went into that. 'In the first rehearsal days, we had to make it very clear when the quartet had to continue playing 'abrupto' and at which moments, on the contrary, they had to rest for more than ten seconds. Soon that changed, we didn't have to say anything anymore and the musicians relied more and more on their own feelings.'

'The musicians, like the actors, are constantly on stage. And just like an actor who doesn't say anything in a scene, but has to maintain the arc of tension throughout the performance, the same applies here to the Heath Quartet. Even when they are not playing, they participate in the action, moving through the space.'

Unrest is of all times and takes many forms

We talk about the great diversity of the spoken texts. 'Even at first reading, Burton's old texts coincided with those of Houllebecq and those written especially for this performance. And more than that: it was soon no longer clear from which era which fragment came from, they quickly formed a unity, independent of time and place, certainly because of the actors' input.'

On the many different forms of unrest. 'Sometimes it is easily traceable to a specific event, often it is more vague. Sometimes it is completely understandable, sometimes somewhat laughable. We all suffer from it.'

Part of the performance

On the way to the airport, with over an hour to go, I realise that everything from this morning is a perfect illustration of the performance.

The personal turmoil? Will I get to the airport on time? How do I make something of this interview I had prepared so well?

The collective unrest? In Birmingham, I saw blockades in several places aimed at preventing a vehicular attack. At the airport, everyone looked nervous.

At three kilometres, I wonder if Bieixto has made me a part of the performance.

Good to know Good to know
The String Quartets Guide to sex and anxiety can be seen at the Holland Festival on 13 and 14 June. Information.

Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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